By JIM ZBICK
Shortly before noon on Aug. 25, 1911, two rail cars connected to a Lehigh Valley Railroad's train derailed near a bridge in Manchester, N.Y., about 16 miles from Geneva, causing what one reporter called "one of the worst wrecks in the history of the state."
Train No. 4 was running 40 minutes behind schedule when it sped past the Geneva station. Among the passengers was a large number of Civil War veterans and their families returning from the national GAR encampment held in Rochester.
At the time of the accident, there were 14 cars in the train, including an express car, mail car, baggage car, six coaches, a Pullman sleeper, a dining car, and parlor car.
Behind two powerful locomotives, the train reduced its speed to 25 miles per hour as it approached a 400-foot trestle spanning the Canandaigua outlet just before the Manchester station. A broken 90-pound rail just before the span, however, caused the train to derail. Several cars plunged down a 60-foot embankment.
The two engines and the first five cars did not derail. The first car to leave the track was a diner, which went down the embankment on its side. Most of the deaths and serious injuries occurred in the 10th and 11th cars, both of wooden construction. Although the 10th car had recently received general repairs by LVRR, it collapsed completely when it fell into the stream bed.
Physicians and nurses from surrounding towns quickly rushed to the scene.
A report in the Tamaqua Courier described the scene of the disaster as one of "almost indescribable horror."
"The passengers of the train run about in a state of panic looking for missing friends or relatives," a writer stated. "Shrieks of the injured for a time filled the air while a large number of surgeons and physicians from surrounding towns were busy dressing the injuries."
Catholic priests were busy administering last rites of the church. When asked by a priest if she was Catholic, one injured woman replied that she was not. Racked by agonizing pain, the woman then asked the priest to pray for her, even though she wasn't Catholic.
"Won't you say a prayer to the good Lord Jesus for me?" she asked tearfully.
The priest then added to the emotionally charged scene by kneeling beside the woman and praying. It impressed the reporter.
"When the priests reached the side of an injured man or woman it mattered but little what their religion might be," he said. "The black-garbed men knelt in prayer and rendered whatever aid they could."
Immediately after being freed from the wreckage, a number of the injured were loaded onto cots in a special train and taken to Rochester hospitals. There, a somber crowd witnessed the arrival.
"Crowds pushed to watch the broken and bleeding people fairly heaped in the cars," one writer noted. "Several were so badly injured that it was seen they could not live."
The task of identifying the victims, meanwhile, was a grim one. A staff of 16 undertakers worked all night embalming bodies and in removing, where possible, the scars made by the wreck. Early reports showed that three of the victims were Civil War veterans but many of the others were either friends or relatives of the GAR contingent.
"Twenty-two of the 27 persons who met death among the twisted and splintered mass of wreckage 50 feet below the trestle have been identified," a reporter stated. "Twenty-two lie in the (nearby village of) Shortsville morgue in rows of rough pine boxes awaiting identification or transportation for burial."
The basement of a country furniture store was also selected for a morgue. Flanked by walls cluttered with stock, the bodies were brought in one at a time and placed side by side on wire cots, which soon filled the room. When they ran out of space, two bodies were placed on one cot.
The final toll in the tragedy was 29 dead and 62 injured.
The defective track, which shattered in 17 pieces and caused the train to derail, was manufactured by the Bethlehem Steel Company. According to the Ogdensburg Advance and St. Lawrence Weekly Democrat, the crack/defect within the rail could not be seen by the naked eye so it couldn't have been detected by simply walking the rails.
Concerns about track defects were not new. A week after the New York disaster, a reporter for the Tamaqua Courier said railmakers and railroad officials had been at odds over the rail malfunctions for years.
Railroad officials felt the steel companies needed to adopt the open hearth process in order to eliminate phosphorus. Such a change would cost the steel corporation an estimated $60 million.
Rail producers, meanwhile, blamed the rail breakage on the excessive weight of the trains, the higher speeds and the poor maintenance of the rails by railroad companies.
Ironically, a year before the LVRR crash, a railroad engineer in Manchester had issued a warning to be watchful for defective rails.
"A constant lookout should be kept by section foremen and track walkers for any indication of visible defects," he warned in that 1910 report.