Monday, November 13, 2017

The Shohola Train Disaster of 1864

Rebs and Yanks Died Together 
by Robert A. Waters 

On the afternoon of July 15, 1864, Engine 171, a thirty-ton wood-burning smoker, chugged along a torturous mountain track in Pennsylvania.  Spewing gun-gray smoke in its wake, the engine pulled seventeen cars loaded with Confederate prisoners of war, many captured during the Battle of Cold Harbor.  More than a hundred Union guards, some standing on top of the cars, escorted the 833 Rebels. 

The train had left Jersey City shortly after daybreak, its hapless prisoners bound for the infamous Elmira prison in New York.  North Carolina's 51st Infantry had been particularly hard-hit at Cold Harbor, and made up a high percentage of the captives. 

Engine 171, with its overloaded cars, snaked westward on the Erie Railroad, averaging twenty miles per hour.  Alongside the tracks lay the beautiful Delaware River.  As the train ascended on the single line, it encountered "blind" curves and sheer cliffs.   

On the same track, Erie Engine 237 was headed east.  Pushing its top speed at twenty-five miles per hour, the train carried fifty cars loaded with coal.   

Meeting at a blind curve near Shohola Township in Pike County, Pennsylvania, the trains collided with a tremendous boom.  Local historian Joseph C. Boyd described the horrific scene: "The wooden coaches telescoped into one another, some splitting open and strewing their human contents onto the berm, where flying glass, splintered wood, and jagged metal killed or injured them as they rolled.  Other occupants were hurled through windows or pitched to the track as the car floors buckled and opened.  The two ruptured engine tenders towered over the wreckage, their massive floor timbers snapped like matchsticks.  Driving rods were bent like wire.  Wheels and axles lay broken." 

Frank Evans, a Union guard, later recounted his view of the aftermath.  "On a curve in a deep cut, we had met a heavily laden train," he wrote, "traveling nearly as fast as we were.  The trains had come together with that deadly crash.  The two locomotives were raised high in the air, face-to-face against each other, like giants grappling.  The tender of our locomotive stood erect on one end.  The engineer and the fireman, poor fellows, were buried beneath the wood it carried.  Perched on the reared-up end of the tender, high above the wreck, was one of our guards, sitting with his gun clutched in his hands, dead!"   
Headless torsos littered the tracks, as well as "bodies impaled on iron rods and splintered beams." 

Fifty-one Confederates died, while seventeen Union guards perished.  (Note: there are minor discrepancies among historians as to the numbers of dead and injured.) 

Townspeople rushed to aid the wounded and remove the dead.  Deceased Confederates were laid out in random rows while the Union dead were reverently covered with blankets. 

In the chaos, five Confederate soldiers escaped.  Soon uninjured Union guards formed a circle around the remaining Rebels to keep others from fleeing. 

Two badly injured North Carolina brothers, John and Michael Johnson, were transported to a nearby home across the river.  They died that night and were buried in the Barryville Congregational Church cemetery.  The other deceased Confederates were placed four at a time in home-made wooden boxes, and buried in a 75-foot-long trench dug by the surviving Rebels. 

Later that night, pine coffins arrived so that the dead Union soldiers could be interred in individual graves. 

As soon as the track was cleared and repaired, the remaining Confederate prisoners were transported to their destination, Elmira Prison. 

Blame for the train crash fell squarely on a drunken Douglas "Duff" Kent, the telegraph operator responsible for coordinating traffic on the railroad.  Before he could face the consequences of his negligence, however, Kent disappeared, never to be seen again. 

The Civil War ended one year later.  Survivors from the North and South went about their daily lives.  Over time, the great Shohola train wreck was largely forgotten to history. 

Forty-seven years later, historians rediscovered the disastrous crash.  In 1911, the Shohola dead were disinterred and taken to Woodlawn National Cemetery in Elmira, New York where they were laid in another common grave. 

The names of the deceased were inscribed on bronze plaques.   

The names of the Union dead face north while the names of the Confederate dead face south. 


 NOTE: Please read my article on Elmira Prison, the "Andersonville of the Union."