Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Pelham Recalled the Pelhamville Train Wreck of 1885 Upon Death of Riley Ellsworth Phillips in 1927

On December 27, 1885, the mail express train out of Boston known as the late night "Owl Train" reached Pelhamville during a major windstorm.  Just as the train sailed past the Pelhamville Station, the gale lifted the station's massive wooden passenger platform into the air and flipped it onto the tracks. 

Engineer Riley Ellsworth Phillips saw the obstruction ahead, cut the steam, and braked.  It did not help.  The locomotive engine smashed into the overturned platform, left the rails, and tumbled end-over-end down the 60-foot embankment, dragging the fire tender and a large mail car with it.  Though the passenger cars left the rails and bounced along throwing the passengers inside about the cabins, no passenger car tumbled down the massive embankment.  

Engineer Phillips and his fireman, recently-married Eugene Blake, were thrown out of the cab as it flipped end-over-end down the embankment.  Phillips was bruised, but lived.  Fireman Blake, however, was crushed during the incident.  He was found at the foot of the embankment and was carried into the nearby Pelhamville train station.  Some accounts say Fireman Blake was laid on a "cot" of some sort in the Pelhamville station.  Others say he was laid on the floor.  

Most accounts agree, however, that once carried into the Pelhamville station, the mortally-injured Eugene Blake suffered tremendously for an agonizing forty minutes.  During most of that time, he was administered to by an angel -- a woman who stepped out from among uninjured train passengers to offer help.  The woman was Emma Cecilia Thursby, a famous American celebrity and singer who traveled the nation giving concerts.  

I have written about Riley Ellsworth Phillips and the Pelhamville Train Wreck on a number of occasions.  See the bibliography with links at the end of today's article.  

The Pelhamville Train Wreck was so significant and so affected Pelhamville residents that it was written about repeatedly in the local newspaper, The Pelham Sun, for many decades after the wreck.  Today's posting to the Historic Pelham Blog transcribes yet another article about the wreck in 1885.  The article appeared in The Pelham Sun the week following the death of Riley Ellsworth Phillips.  Its text is immediately below, followed by a citation and link to its source.

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Riley Ellsworth Phillips, 80, Dies After Sixty-one Year Service, Was Seriously Injured When Locomotive Left Rails At Pelhamville in 1885

The death last Thursday of Riley Ellsworth Phillips, veteran locomotive engineer of the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad recalls to many of the older residents of the Pelhams, the wreck of the 'Bankers' Express' at the old Pelhamville station, on the night of December 27, 1885.  That accident in which one man was killed and Phillips' locomotive and tender were hurled from the railroad embankment at what is now Pelham station, was the only wreck charged against the record of the veteran engineer.  

Old timers can tell a vivid story of the wreck at Pelhamville.  To them it brings a living picture of the little town as it was in the old days.  The railroad embankment was crossed by a grade crossing at what is now Fifth avenue.  It was little more than a wagon track made by the carts of the farmers from the farm districts between the railroad and Long Island Sound.

A brick station stood to the west of the grade crossing.  A platform of oak planking extended some distance past the station.  It was this platform that was responsible for the wreck of the crack 'Bankers' Express' with Phillips at the throttle.

The high wind of a winter storm tore the platform from its moorings, and lifting it up turned it over onto the railroad tracks, shortly before the express was due to pass through Pelhamville.

Making up time, Phillips had the big locomotive doing its best when the train approached Pelhamville station.  Suddenly he saw the wrecked platform lying right in the path of the train.  He endeavored to apply the brakes, but the danger was unavoidable.  The heavy locomotive crashed into the timbers, leaving the rails hurtled through the air to the foot of the embankment, carrying the tender and baggage car along with it.  Fortunately the passenger coaches did not leave the rails.

Phillips crawled out of the wrecked locomotive, seriously injured.  The body of his fireman was later found in the wreck.  Three mail clerks were injured.  Removal of the wreck took more than a week with the inadequate wrecking machinery used in those days.  

Phillips recovered and was absolved from all blame.  He continued in the service of the railroad and was one of the road's most trusted employees.  He would have completed his sixty-second year with the railroad in July.  

He was eighty years old and was a veteran of the Civil War."

Source:  DEATH OF ENGINEER RECALLS WRECK OF BANKERS EXPRESS AT PELHAMVILLE -Riley Ellsworth Phillips, 80, Dies After Sixty-one Year Service, Was Seriously Injured When Locomotive Left Rails At Pelhamville in 1885, The Pelham Sun, Feb. 25, 1927, p. 10, cols. 1-2.  

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Only known photograph showing the aftermath of the
"Pelhamville Train Wreck of 1885.” The January 16, 1886
issue of Scientific American included an artist’s depiction
of the same scene in connection with an article about the
wreck describing it as "A Remarkable Railroad Accident"
that occurred on the New Haven Line in Pelhamville
(now part of the Village of Pelham) at about 6:00 a.m.
on December 27, 1885. See A Remarkable Railroad Accident,
Scientific American, Jan. 16, 1886, Vol. LIV, No. 3, pp. 31-32.
The engine and tender lie in the foreground with the mail
car behind. NOTE: Click Image To Enlarge.

Front Cover and Images of the January 16, 1886 Issue
of Scientific American that Featured a Cover Story About
the Pelhamville Train Wreck Entitled "A Remarkable Railroad
Accident." NOTE: Click on Images to Enlarge.

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I have written before about the Pelhamville Train Wreck of 1885 that resulted in the death of Fireman Eugene Blake and injuries to several others including the train engineer, Riley Phillips. See:

Mon., Sep. 24, 2007:  The Pelhamville Train Wreck of 1885

Bell, Blake A., The Pelhamville Train Wreck of 1885: "One of the Most Novel in the Records of Railroad Disasters, 80(1) The Westchester Historian, pp. 36-43 (2004).

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