Group honors trail’s tragic history

OBSERVER Photo by Ann Belcher Chautauqua Rails to Trails President, Jim Fincher (far left) unveils a relevant and remarkable piece of rail equipment as part of the dedication and remembrance service for the 1872 Christmas Eve train crash held Sunday afternoon.

PORTLAND — Well over 100 people took a historic path down a historic trail in the woods Sunday. Residents and dignitaries alike gathered at the Prospect Station Trailhead location of Chautauqua Rails to Trails for an unveiling and dedication ceremony with historic significance.

Jim Fincher, Rails to Trails president, opened the ceremony noting, “We’re marking a sad occasion at the same time that part of our county’s history is celebrated today.”

Fincher explained to the crowd how the historical piece of equipment marking the 1872 crash of a Buffalo, Corry and Pittsburgh train on Christmas Eve came to be dedicated. Carl Belke, chief operating officer of the Western New York and Pennsylvania Railroad, not only commissioned, but obtained the piece of “truck” system that was unveiled. The creation of the historical sculpture made possible by Belke contains a wheel, railroad ties, as well as a piece of rail, and was installed utilizing a 20-ton truck at the very site of 1872 wreck.

The cause of the crash, he related, was a two-wheel, one axle truck system beneath the cars, which were not as effective at keeping the car on the track as a two-axle system with four wheels. After crossing a wooden bridge, which traversed through what is now the Prospect Station Trail of Rails to Trails, the wheel truck system being heated to a certain point, jumped off the track and caused the passenger cars to overturn and topple, causing 20 passengers to die instantly.

Ironically, the actual station office of that section of railroad was located directly where the trailhead parking area now sits. However, as Fincher explained, because of the holiday and the time of night, nobody was working the station to respond and 10 more passengers would die that night as a result.

“This is a beautiful section of a tragic piece of history,” Fincher concluded.

Answering questions from the crowd, Fincher also noted that the train that evening was making its way from Mayville, North East to Brocton. Now that the memorial piece is set, Rails to Trails will commemorate the deceased on Christmas Eve this year at 3 p.m. from the site. More details will be announced as it nears.

Devotional music concluded the ceremony, before all guests retired to the trailhead for refreshments. Fincher thanked those instrumental in Sunday’s dedication as well as those active with the organization, including Robert Wright, John Goodell, Sam Thorndike and Robert Berke.

For more information about the mission of Chautauqua’s Rails to Trails, or events to be held throughout the year, visit or the organization’s official Facebook page.