Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Forgotten Civil War Tragedy...

Without a doubt, Pennsylvania is known for Civil War casualties and tragedy. The 1860s saw many deaths of both Union and Confederate troops. Ghosts of dead soldiers are a common theme at war-related locales, yet there may be some undiscovered spirits from one of Pennsylvania's great Civil War tragedies waiting to be discovered. I do not speak of Gettysburg. I am referring to Shohola.

For those unfamiliar with the town, Shohola is a small village seated along the Delaware River along the Pennsylvania/New York border some 60 miles northwest of New York City. As its name (a Lenni Lanape Native American word meaning "place of peace") implies, it is a quiet, unassuming place. Only a metal sign in town hints at the great tragedy which occurred approximately a mile west of downtown resulting in the deaths of dozens of soldiers from both sides of the battle.

It happened on July 15, 1864. A train loaded with over 800 Confederate prisoners bound for the Elmira Prison departed Point Lookout, Maryland. 128 Union soldiers were scattered throughout the train, guarding the prisoners-of-war. Engine 171 fell behind schedule after a delay hunting down a few escaped Confederates and pulled into Port Jervis nearly four hours late.

This same afternoon, Engine 237 pulled down the Erie Railroad tracks laden with coal. The engineer and his 50 coal cars stopped at Lackawaxen to verify that the track ahead was clear. He asked the telegraph operator Douglas "Duff" Kent the status of the track. Though Kent had been warned that another special train was due, the tardiness of the locomotive coupled with Kent's known abuse of alcohol jumbled up messages. Engine 237 left Lackawaxen Station and rumbled through Shohola at 2:45 PM.

Just west of town, the Erie track follows a blind furve through the earth known as King and Fuller's Cut. It was here that the two locomotives met head on. There was only enough time for the engineer of the 237 to jump from the cab before collision. Both the engineer and fireman of the 171 were killed instantly when the wood from the tender leapt into the engine, crushing them to death. The fireman of the 237 met a similar fate, though the crushing logs did not kill him outright; he was pinned against the boiler where he slowly scalded to death, warning rescuers not to come close for fear the locomotive would explode. The first few passenger cars of the train loaded with soldiers telescoped into each other, each compressed to a depth of several feet. countless others were tossed like matchsticks and showered with wood splinters and shards of glass. The corpse of one Union guard sat perched on the reared-up tender still clutching his gun.

Officially, 17 Union soldiers died at the wreck or over the following week from their injuries. An estimated 80+ Confederate soldiers died in the wreck and a lucky five prisoners took the opportunity to flee, never to be found. The dead Confederates were buried in a 75-foot trench not far from the wreck while the Union dead were given proper burials. An investigation found the telegraph operator to blame. He was said to have remained ambivalent toward the accident after hearing the news in his drunken stooper and even attended a dance that very night. The angered townspeople sough vengance against him, but he fled for his life and was never seen or heard from again.

It took nearly 50 years for the Confederate victims to receive a proper burial. Between 60 and 72 bodies were disinterred from the mass grave and buried in Woodlawn National Cemetery in Elmira on June 11, 1911. No one knows for sure if all the victims were accounted for.

A new set of tracks exist today, winding through a stone-lined pass at the accident site along the Delaware River. Citizens of Shohola lay flowers at the wreck site each year in memory of the accident. Often in cases of such disastrous accidents, at least a few souls linger on at the site in quiet memory. If there were ever a place ripe for hauntings, it would be these woods outside of Shohola where nearly a hundred lives were lost almost 150 years ago.


Buck said...

Thanks for that tidbit of history. I was unaware of this tragedy despite having studied Gettysburg in some detail years ago thanks to my family connections (a Great-Great Uncle killed the first day with a SC regiment). Of course, I never looked too much into the aftermath.

Jeanne said...

Wonderful account, Ken.
I'll have to share with my hubby who is a train buff.

Anonymous said...

Like Lonesome lock, would definatly be a cool place to check out.