108 Years Ago Today: Freight Train Wreck on the Branch Line Between Pelham Manor and Bartow Station
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Pelham is a town once tied to the sea. Yet, it developed its unique character, principally, from the multiple railroads that later muscled through the town from the adjacent metropolis of New York City.
In the early to mid-19th century, railroads blossomed from New York City. The New Haven Line, the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad (the "Branch Line") and, in the early 20th century, the New York, Westchester and Boston Railway crossed Pelham. There were bound to be accidents.
Accidents there were.
I have written of major railroad accidents in and around Pelham. One such accident, known as the "Pelhamville Train Wreck," attracted truly international attention and was featured on the cover of the January 16, 1886 issue of Scientific American. The Pelhamville Train Wreck occurred at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and First Street on December 27, 1885. There have, however, been many other railroad accidents in and near our town.
In 2004, I wrote an article that collected information about all the train wrecks that have happened near the Pelham Manor Station that once stood at the end of today's Esplanade. See Train Wrecks Near Depot Square in Pelham Manor, The Pelham Weekly, Vol. XIII, No. 44, Nov. 5, 2004, p. 13, col. 1. For a list of articles regarding Pelham train wrecks, see the bibliography with links, where available, at the end of this article.
One such wreck occurred on the Branch Line between Pelham Manor Depot and Bartow Station on February 26, 1908. It was a particularly tragic, and deadly, accident.
The Branch Line between Pelham Manor and Bartow Station during the 19th and early 20th centuries was treacherous. Just east of the Bartow Station was a place where the tracks were laid across a short bridge known as "Rock Cut Bridge" and then through a cut into a large rock outcropping. The cut through the rock outcropping that gave the bridge its name was known, appropriately, as "Rock Cut." Between Rock Cut and the Bartow Station (immediately to the west of Rock Cut) was an area where -- even as late as 1908 -- two tracks from the east turned into four tracks from that point onward toward the east into New York City. To make matters worse, as westward trains that were headed toward New York City approached the area, there was a curve in the tracks immediately before Rock Cut known as "Pelham Manor Curve." If this all seems a recipe for disaster, consider the following: through the entire area, trains from the west headed eastward toward New York City were barrelling down an incline . . . .
Without electric signals or radio communications, there were critical safety precautions to be taken in the area of Pelham Manor Curve, the Rock Cut, and the Rock Cut Bridge, particularly because freight and passenger trains shared the tracks. Freight trains headed toward New York City frequently stopped where the tracks branched from two into four tracks as they awaited instructions from nearby Bartow Station as to the track they should take. Any time, of course, a train stopped in such fashion, it was supposed to be protected with a flag and, in darkness, with railroad lanterns. That meant that the train flagman was expected to hop down from the stopped train and carry a flag and lanterns to a point sufficiently behind the train to flag and signal any oncoming train that there was another train stopped ahead.
At 5:00 a.m. on February 26, 1908, it was both dark and misty. Freight Train No. 581, headed toward New York City, was a steam locomotive pulling 25 freight cars. Charles Deenier was the train flagman. No. 581 stopped where the two tracks from the east (headed toward New York City) branched into four tracks "to await orders to go on toward the Willis avenue terminus." Deenier's job as flagman was to hop off the stopped train, head down the tracks behind the train and, at that time of the early winter morning, deploy a flag and railroad lanterns to signal any approaching train that there was a train stopped on the tracks ahead.
God only knows why Charles Deenier did not do his job as flagman 108 years ago today.
Approaching from the east toward New York City was a truly massive freight train, No. 561. The locomotive pulling the freight cars was of the "monster type." It had to be a monster. It was pulling 45 freight cars -- not quite twice the size of No. 581 stopped on the tracks ahead.
Train engineer Leonard Boat of Hartford, Connecticut was in the cab of No. 561 and looked for a flag at the Pelham Manor curve. According to an important account, "when he did not find one he supposed he had a clear way in on to the freight tracks." The way, of course, was not clear. An account published the day of the massive wreck said:
"[The Engineer, Leonard Boat] let the train run on down the grade, which was sufficient to give the train quite a momentum. The train went on through the cut and out on the Rock Cut bridge, and then Engineer Boat saw ahead of him, only about 150 yards away, the standing train. The gloom and mist of the morning would have prevented a much nearer view had the track been straight and open. Engineer Boat at once applied the air brakes, but the slippery rails and badly working air operated to render this unavailing. The train slid on with the weight of the forty-five cars and their down-grade momentum, and crashed into the caboose of train No. 581. The force was such that the locomotive plowed through the caboose, or cabin car, and into the last freight car."
On the engine with Engineer Boat were firemen James Messner of Hartford and Walter Davis of Springfield. It was unusual to have two firemen to feed the fire that powered the steam engine, but No. 561 was massive, requiring two. In addition, "Head Brakeman" James Valver of West Springfield was aboard the engine as well.
As No. 561 parted the gloom, darkness, and mist of the early winter morning, Engineer Boat was the first to see something ahead. He jammed the brakes but instantly realized, in his heart, that the monster train he drove would not stop in time.
Imagine this: you are engineering such a massive train and perceive ahead a disastrous crash. Your colleagues and friends are with you in the engine. You have only seconds to react. What would you do?
Train Engineer Leonard Boat must have done something right. "[J]ust before the moment of the crash," everyone in the engine of No. 561 leaped from the train into the darkness and onto the ground below. Every man in the engine escaped injury except one of the two firemen -- James Messner "who rolled down a steep bank and received internal injuries and many bruises. He was later taken to New Rochelle Hospital, in a serious condition."
Flagman Charles Deenier on the stopped train was not so lucky. Inexplicably he was in the last car of No. 561 rather than down on the tracks signaling the stoppage. The monster locomotive, with no crew aboard, pushed by the weight of 45 freight cars barreling down the incline smashed into the stopped train.
The locomotive tore through the last car of the stopped train. Immediately the wreckage ignited and began to blaze. An alarm was called to the City Island Fire Department which responded and extinguished the blaze. Only then was the mangled body of flagman Charles Deenier discovered in the wreckage.
A wrecking crew was dispatched and quickly cleared the a track for passenger trains. Within hours, all wreckage was cleared and all four tracks into the metropolis of New York City were open once again -- 108 years ago today.
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Below is the text of an important article about the February 26, 1908 freight train crash that is the subject of today's posting to the Historic Pelham Blog. It is followed by a citation and link to its source.
"FREIGHT TRAINS COLLIDE; ONE MAN KILLED, ONE HURT
Negligent Brakeman on N.Y., N.H. and H.R.R., Met Instant Death in the Crash.
ENGINE SMASHED A CABOOSE.
Wreckage of Cars Began to Blaze Immediately After Accident Near Bartow.
The misty weather and slippery condition of the rails are given as the causes for a serious wreck this morning on the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad Company's old line from Willis avenue to New Rochelle, near Bartow, which is the City Island station. A brakeman was killed and a fireman badly injured.
The dead man was Charles Deenoir, brakeman, on the first train, who was crushed and horribly mangled in the caboose of his train. The injured man is Fireman Messner of the second train, who received internal and other injuries and was taken to the New Rochelle Hospital, where the doctors say he may not recover.
The wreck occurred in the dim light of the early morning, just east of the Bartow station. A short distance beyond this station there is a big cut, known to the trainmen as 'Rock Cut.' Between the cut and the station, freight tracks branch off on either side, making four tracks, on into the city. Passenger and freight trains alike use the two tracks from New Rochelle to the point where the four tracks commence.
A little after 5 o'clock this morning a freight train, No. 581, of twenty-five cars, pulled in on the freight tracks from the east and stopped to await orders to go on toward the Willis avenue terminus. The train was supposed to be protected by a flag. Deenier, the dead man, was the train flagman, and it was his duty to be back across Rock Cut bridge, through the cut itself, and out around Pelham Manor curve, with a flag, and at that hour with red and white lanterns. That he was killed when the crash came and that his body was found in the ruins of the caboose proves that he was not at his post of duty. The superintendent of the division says Deenier is to blame for the wreck which cost his life. Whether he was asleep in the caboose or not can only be guessed.
While the train was thus standing unprotected, another freight train of forty-five cars came upon the scene. Engineer Leonard Boat of Hartford, Conn., who was in the cab, says he looked for a flag at the Pelham Manor curve, and when he did not find one he supposed he had a clear way in on to the freight tracks. Therefore, he let the train run on down the grade, which was sufficient to give the train quite a momentum. The train went on through the cut and out on the Rock Cut bridge, and then Engineer Boat saw ahead of him, only about 150 yards away, the standing train. The gloom and mist of the morning would have prevented a much nearer view had the track been straight and open.
Engineer Boat at once applied the air brakes, but the slippery rails and badly working air operated to render this unavailing. The train slid on with the weight of the forty-five cars and their down-grade momentum, and crashed into the caboose of train No. 581. The force was such that the locomotive plowed through the caboose, or cabin car, and into the last freight car.
On the engine with Engineer Boat were firemen James Messner of Hartford and Walter Davis of Springfield -- there are two firemen on the monster locomotives of the type used -- and Head Brakeman James Valver of West Springfield. These all stayed with the engine until just before the moment of the crash, and then tumbled off the locomotive on both sides. All escaped without injury except Meesner, who rolled down a steep bank and received internal injuries and many bruises. He was later taken to New Rochelle Hospital, in a serious condition.
The wreck almost immediately took fire and a call was sent for the City Island Fire Department, which speedily extinguished the blaze. The body of Deenier was found in the debris of the caboose, horribly mangled. He had been killed instantly. He lived at 171 Alexander avenue, the Bronx. The body was later removed to the Fordham Morgue by order of Coroner McDonald.
During the first moments of excitement Conductor Louis Hagenar of train No. 581 ran up to the wreck. When he was sought a few minutes later he could not be found, and it was reported that he had been killed also in the caboose, until some one remembered seeing him afterward. He was missing for some time, but finally returned and said that the excitement had unnerved him and made him run away. Conductor William McGill of train No. 561, the second train, remained on the scene.
A wrecking crew was sent to the scene from Manhattan in a short time, and the passenger tracks were quickly cleared of obstruction. The inbound freight track was not cleared until several hours later.
Coroner McDonald later ordered the arrest of Engineer Boat on a technical charge of homicide, and he was taken in charge by the City Island police."
Source: FREIGHT TRAINS COLLIDE; ONE MAN KILLED, ONE HURT -- Negligent Brakeman on N.Y., N.H. and H.R.R., Met Instant Death in the Crash -- ENGINE SMASHED A CABOOSE -- Wreckage of Cars Began to Blaze Immediately After Accident Near Bartow, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Feb. 26, 1908, p. 5, col. 2 (NOTE: Paid subscription required to access via this link).
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I have written many articles that document train wrecks in and near Pelham. This is not a complete list, but it collectively should serve as a guide for those who wish to research the issue of train wrecks in the region.
Wed., Feb. 11, 2015: Coroner's Inquest Jury Found Railroad "Criminally Negligent" in the Pelhamville Train Wreck of 1885.
Train Wrecks Near Depot Square in Pelham Manor, The Pelham Weekly, Vol. XIII, No. 44, Nov. 5, 2004, p. 13, col. 1.
Order a Copy of "Thomas Pell and the Legend of the Pell Treaty Oak."