WAYLAND — It is hard to imagine the agony 28 men, women, and children felt as they were trapped in a death car and steamed alive over seven decades ago.
To anyone hearing this story today, it would sound like something out of a horror movie. However, this tragedy was close to home on the railroad tracks near Gunlocke. On Aug. 30, 1943 a passenger train carrying hundreds of people collided with a locomotive freight train in Wayland. This due mostly to human error and broken rule regulations. This horrific accident took the lives of 28 people and injured 150 others in what is still considered one of the most devastating train wrecks in history.
On Sept. 9 the Wayland Area Historical Society held the 75th Anniversary of this wreck with a two minute clip of the accident and a program by Michael Connor, a railroad historian.
The Lackawanna Limited No. 3 was a beautiful train in her day, and it transported people from New York City to Buffalo. On this particular day there were students and military personnel onboard. Later it would be referred to as the Phoebe Snow, which was a symbol of the Lackawanna train in 1948. This symbol was appealing to travelers since it showed a lady in a pristine white dress traveling by train. She would keep the clean white dress no matter how far the train took her. This was due to the fact that a new form of coal was being used by the company.
Connor has spent his life deeply loving trains, and has worked for 10 train companies in his lifetime.
Connors said that the saddest part of the 1943 tragedy is that it could’ve been avoided.
“Lackawanna’s fatal flaw was the change in their rules and regulations for the time table,” he said. “If there had been no flaw in the time table there would be no wreck to talk about today. The problem was that no one fell on their sword with this wreck.”
In 1881 the Lackawanna Railroad built a track through the Wayland area. This offered first class seating to the passengers. These trips would connect New York City to Chicago, St. Louis, and Cleveland. It was named the Nickel Plate Road since it ran through Lake Erie and Westfield, NY.
It was World War II that changed the course of railroad activity, as 1,500 employees of the railroad were drafted to fight and that left old men to run things. These men were close to retirement, and this plays a large role in what happened that horrific day, according to Connor.
The trains ran through Wayland until June 30, 1962 when it was decided that would be the last ride. In its glory days this area saw about four trains a day, and often the mail was carried by train. The same rules applied for Dansville and Mount Morris Depot.
With the new rules being put in place just a few short years before the accident, it was stated that all freight trains needed to give passenger trains 10 minutes to clear the track. This would be the fatal flaw in the accident that took many lives.
Connor said the engineer and brakeman miraculously survived the wreck, but the supervisor had been ejected from the train and crushed on the track.
“There was a very important signal on the track that was not switched properly,” Connor said. “The wreck happened near the switch. The freight needed to clear the main switch. A switch had been thrown for the Limited that informed them it was clear.”
The DL&W 1151 engine was built in the 1930s and weighs 180 tons. It typically cruised along at 80 miles-per-hour. This train was seen at the World’s Fair in New York City in 1939-1940. Connor mentioned the Lackawanna was a very wealthy railroad, and it was often praised by people of the time.
The freight had its steam engine torn apart, and this was what busted on the track. It ultimately caused the deaths of all most of the souls on the NKP 62 Coach Car. This was the train car that had its windows shattered, and basically acted like a kettle cooking people alive. The scalding water and steam entered the car, and as people screamed in agony there was nothing that could be done to save them.
Connor said the engineer was not made aware of the change in the switch until it was too late for him to stop the train. This is what caused the collision of The Lackawanna Limited.
Many policeman, community members, and medical personnel arrived on scene to try and save as many passengers as they could. It was a nightmare to anyone who was alive to witness it as the agonizing screams came from the death trap. Still many rushed to pull people out of the wreckage as some had severe burns, and worse. The deaths ranged from a five-year-old girl to an 81-year-old woman.
The NKP 62 Coach Car was quickly restored and used for several years after the incident. In 1983 it was bought by a historical society in Ohio. Now you can take a ride on this historic car in Cleveland. For more information visit https://www.midwestrailway.org/