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, August 25, 2017

Pelham Remembered in 1922 the Remarkable Pelhamville Train Wreck of 1885

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.

Periodically over the years, local newspapers have carried accounts of the Pelhamville Train Wreck.  One that seems to be one of the earliest such accounts appeared in the December 15, 1922 issue of The Pelham Sun.  In addition to describing the wreck based on a famous account of it that appeared in the January 16, 1886 issue of Scientific American, the article contained a host of interesting information.

It described Pelhamville and its homes, structures, farms, and wooded hillsides as they existed at the time of the wreck.  It noted that old-timers still remembered the accident, including old-timer John T. Logan who had kept a copy of the January 16, 1886 Scientific American with engravings of the wreck and surrounding area.  Logan provided his copy of the Scientific American to The Pelham Sun in 1922 for use of the images and description of the wreck in the story.  

Additionally, the story noted that when the Pelhamville Train Station eventually was torn down (after a fire damaged it rather badly, though the story does not mention that fact) timbers used in the structure and in the massive wooden passenger platform that stood adjacent to the tracks were used to build a nearby garage located on First Street.  The article states:

"Interesting, too, is the fact that many of the timbers which were contained in the old station house and platform were used in the construction of the building on First Street, which is now used as a garage by Terence Mackel."

The text of the 1922 article appears immediately below.  It is followed by a citation and link to its source.

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"Railroad Wreck Featured Christmas In The Pelhams Thirty-Seven Years Ago
Remarkable Happening Caused Derailment of Train at Fifth Avenue Station of New Haven R. R.

THE PELHAMS have been remarkably free from disasters of any consequence, seemingly being favored by the Goddess of Fortune in this respect.  Last summer when the whirlwind and thunderstorm cut a wide swath through this section of Westchester County leaving death and destruction in its wake, and strewing the shores of the Sound with the wreckage of hundreds of pleasure boats which were victims of its unexpected onslaught, the Pelhams escaped practically scatheless.

Thirty-seven years ago -- December 26, 1885 [sic; Dec. 27]-- Pelham (then known as Pelhamville), was the scene of a remarkable railroad accident when part of the Boston Flyer en route for New York, left the rails and plunged down the embankment at the Pelhamville station of the New Haven Railroad.  The train left Boston Christmas night at 10:30 and had a full complement of passengers.  It consisted of engine and tender, mail coach, and five passenger cars, the mail coach being next to the engine.

'Christmas, of 1885, was a raw, blustery winter day, and as night approached the wind increased in velocity until it blew a gale, and at 6 o'clock on the morning of the 26th it was still whirling the snow around in huge flurries.

In those days, the main line station of the New Haven was west of its present site, being located on the other side of Fifth Avenue, extending from where is now the Burke Stone, Inc. real estate office down to the taxi barn of Terence Mackel, on First Street.  At that time Fifth Avenue was a mudhole of a road, which wound its way along the wooded hillside on which now is located the fine residential district of Pelhamwood.  It was little more than a wagon track which led from the surrounding farms to the little wayside railroad station of Pelhamville, with a plank sidewalk from Fourth Street to the depot.

The depot itself was built of brick with a tower to give grace to the structure, and the platform outside the the waiting room was of solid oak planks spiked down to heavy uprights driven into the ground.  Fifth Avenue of those days crossed the track at grade and it was not until six years afterward that the track was tunneled under and the bridge built so that traffic could go on undisturbed and trains would not have to slow down at the crossing.  The track was raised too, to make the grade of the tunnel [sic] less.

As the train approached at top speed, a terrific gust of wind got underneath the platform, tore it from its fastenings and turned it completely over on to the tracks directly in the path of the oncoming train.  The engineer saw the danger and applied the brakes, but too lat to save crashing into the timbers.  It ploughed [sic] through the obstruction with a terrific tearing sound, smashing it to kindling wood.  Then the engine, tender and mail car left the track and plunged down the embankment, but the rest of the train containing a large number of passengers fortunately remained on top, although entirely derailed, with the exception of the forward truck of the baggage car at the rear.  The fireman was killed, the engineer and three of the seven mail clerks were seriously injured, while a number of the passengers sustained a severe shaking up.

There was little aid to be gotten nearer than New Rochelle, for the Pelhamville of thad day consisted of four houses on what is now Fifth Avenue and a few scattered farms in the vicinity.  The nearest house to the depot was the building now owned by Earl Shanks and housing his druggist business.  That can be seen in one of the accompanying illustrations.  Up Fifth Ave. within 50 feet of Peter Ceders' real estate once stood a house owned by John Case, and on the other side of the street where Caffrey's gasoline station is now was the home of Mr. Straly.  One other building, the store of Jacob Heisser at Fourth Street [today's Lincoln Avenue] and Fifth Avenue, now occupied by the Progressive Grocery Company, completed 'Main Street, Pelhamville.'

The news of the train wreck caused a number of people to come from New Rochelle and Mount Vernon to visit the scene.  A large body of workmen were sent to Pelhamville by the railroad company, and for several days they worked constructing a track up the bank.  The engine, tender and mail car were righted, placed on the auxiliary track and pulled up to the place on the main line.  The work occupied over a week.

The train wreck is well remembered by some of the older inhabitants of Pelham, and particularly by John T. Logan of Second Avenue.  Mr. Logan carefully preserved the account of the accident and the accompanying pictures which appeared in the Scientific American of January 16, 1886, and to him The Pelham Sun is indebted for loan of the pictures and the story of the wreck.

Interesting, too, is the fact that many of the timbers which were contained in the old station house and platform were used in the construction of the building on First Street, which is now used as a garage by Terence Mackel.

How great a change has been wrought in this locality since that time can be imagined from the statements of Mr. Logan.  Pelhamwood and Pelham Heights were then wooded hillside.  The Boston and Westchester Railroad had not been built, paved streets were unknown, as were street lights.  The inhabitants of Pelhamville found their way at night by the aid of lanterns, and these used to be taken to the country store of Jacob Heisser at Fourth Street and Fifth Avenue to be filled and trimmed."

Source:  Railroad Wreck Featured Christmas In The Pelhams Thirty-Seven Years Ago -- Remarkable Happening Caused Derailment of Train at Fifth Avenue Station of New Haven R. R., The Pelham Sun, Dec. 15, 1922, Vol. 13, No. 42, p. 7, cols. 1-3.

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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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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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