By APRIL DIODATO
OBSERVER Lifestyles Editor
On Christmas Eve 1872, a newlywed couple boarded a train in Mayville on the Buffalo and Oil Creek Cross Cut Railroad. Returning from their honeymoon, the groom, 28, was from Titusville, Pa., and his bride, 22, hailed from Henrietta, N.Y. Wilbur F. and Coralin Jackson Rice of Rochester were married for just under three weeks, likely homebound for the holidays. They never reached their destination.
Chautauqua Rails to Trails has planned a mini-hike and a moment of silence for 2:30 p.m. Christmas Eve on the anniversary of the Prospect trainwreck.
The railroad ran from Corry, Pa., to Brocton, with Prospect Station located at the intersection of Fish and Barnes roads in Portland. As the train approached Prospect Station and started to pass over the Cross Cut trestle at about 2:30 p.m., the rear left wheel of the tender broke. It resulted in the tender, the baggage and passenger cars being thrown from the track, toppling into the valley below. The wooden cars were crushed and the coal providing heat caused them to immediately set aflame, ravaging the wreckage with the travelers trapped inside.
The couple's story is inscribed on their tombstone in Mount Hope Cemetery, Rochester. Mr. and Mrs. Rice "met death together ... at the Prospect Station Railroad Disaster on Christmas Eve."
These were only two of the lives derailed by the tragic accident that occurred Dec. 24, 1872, which claimed 20 and wounded an estimated 18 others, with some succumbing to their injuries in the days that followed. Aid took time to reach the victims, with neighbors helping to pull passengers from the rubble. The fire raged on for several hours.
Those who perished 140 years ago will be remembered in a small ceremony following a mini hike from Prospect Station trailhead to the accident site, now the rail-trail in the town of Portland. Hosted by Chautauqua Rails to Trails on Christmas Eve at 2:30 p.m., details of the disaster will be shared and a moment of silence for the victims will be held.
The site of the accident is located in the backyard of Brocton Central School Guidance Counselor Bob Wright. Holding a small gathering in memory of the lives lost at Prospect Station has become a Christmas Eve tradition for Wright. In some years, the ceremony has been limited to Wright, his wife and children; on other occasions, a handful of friends would join in.
"We just go out there and say a few words, and then have a couple of cocktails," he said. "We've done it every year since I've lived here."
Fascinated by the tales of the tragedy that took place so near to his home, Wright began to research the wreck and the people involved. He has amassed a large file containing articles, photos and mementos, any scrap of information connected to the station's history he has been able to find. There are old newspaper articles, photocopies from texts, a book by Paul Leone including a ghost story set in the aftermath of the accident, even a 1908 train ticket marked "Prospect Station" that once belonged to his grandfather. A Brocton native, Wright grew up on a dairy farm on the corner of Plank and Bliss roads; he's lived near the former station for about a decade.
"At one time, there was a hotel, a livery stable, a post office here, back in the 1800s," Wright said. "It's kind of a ghost town."
Artist George Petrella, a retired art teacher at Brocton Central School, lives along the trail/former railroad. Petrella, a railroad aficionado, has also done some reading on the Prospect Christmas disaster and the history of the area.
"When they discovered oil in Oil City (Pa.), there was a race to figure out how to get the oil out of Oil City," Petrella said. "The first railroad completed was the one that went from Brocton to Corry to Oil City ... it made Brocton a boom town for 10, 20, 30 years in the late 1800s."
A community developed at Prospect Station, where trains traveling north or south would stop on the way to Corry. In addition to the hotel and post office, a general store, tavern and restaurant also sprang up as it became a shipping station for grape growers in the area. Prospect Station was abandoned as railroad technology developed in the early 1900s.
"There's still foundations in the ground," Petrella said. "One thing that surprises me looking at all the old photos, Chautauqua County was stripped of all trees. The only places where there were trees were on property lines. Everything has been logged. You go up there now, you're in the middle of the woods. ... When you go through Rails to Trails now, all the trestles have now been filled in. Chautauqua County is green again."
THE LIVES LOST
Wright wanted to know more about the passengers aboard the ill-fated train. Where were they going? Where did they come from? He investigated the names on the list of casualties, attempting to locate their gravesites. He also searched for details on the survivors and those who helped save the gravely injured from the ruins. Who were they - and where did life take them?
"There's a 16-year-old girl, Sarah, who the injured talked about, so I got what little info I could find on her," Wright related, handing over some genealogical research on Sarah A. Arnold, daughter of William H. Arnold. "They're both buried in the (Westfield and Portland) Union Cemetery."
According to the information Wright uncovered, Sarah's father William was the son of Elisha Arnold, Portland supervisor in 1830 and 1833-35. The family had a farm near Prospect Station; William took over the homestead, where Sarah apparently grew up. Some victims were taken to the Arnold farm; an article in the Fredonia Censor notes Sarah's "heroic service." Others were taken to Mayville or the home of Prospect Station Postmaster Alpha Barnes, who also lived near the station. The conductor, Fay Flanders of Corry, Pa., whom Wright also researched, was taken to the Barnes household. He was badly hurt while being pulled from the debris and did not recover; after his death, his wife eventually remarried.
"There's a couple of people who were buried in (Portland) Evergreen Cemetery and they were in the train crash, but that was not the cause of death. There's also a tombstone in Arkwright from (A. Cardot) who died there."
The more Wright read about the accident and its place in local record, the more interested he became.
"Some people would say that it's probably the second-worst accident in the history of Chautauqua County," Wright remarked. "If you start looking at the newspaper articles, it gets pretty gruesome."
Perhaps the most sensational testimony was in the New York Times on Christmas Day, 1872, the article among the many clippings scattered atop Wright's desk in his Brocton guidance office:
"There was no way of escape for the imprisoned passengers. The cars immediately took fire, but there was no water to extinguish the flames and only two axes could be procured to chop the cars to pieces. In this situation some 25 persons were roasted alive, filling the air for nearly an hour with their dying shrieks for aid."
Word of the wreck spread quickly across the region and beyond, with divergent details in each account. The Times reported 22 deaths and 18 wounded in its Dec. 25, 1872 story, with the coach and baggage car tumbling down a 27-foot-high bridge. The Fredonia Censor's Jan. 1, 1873 article said there were 20 killed, "23 injured and the train badly burned!" - the cars "were speedily hurled from the top of the frame work to the gulf below, a distance of 25 feet." The Westfield Republican's modest version included that the train fell 20 to 25 feet. The paper had reporters on the scene at 6 p.m. Christmas Eve, as "the work of extricating the survivors and the many charred bodies began." Some, according to the Censor, "were so burned and disfigured that it was almost impossible to recognize them."
"I read 10 years ago or so in an article that the actual death toll was 32," Petrella said. "It's always listed at 20 because of the 20 people that died at the scene. ... The article said that over the next two weeks, another 12 died."
Among the causalities were residents of Rochester, Brocton, Farnham, Westfield, Arkwright, Sherman, Mayville, Lancaster; Ontario, Canada; and several Pennsylvania towns, including Spring Creek, Miller's Station, Corry and Titusville. Wounded passengers from came from Hartfield, Fredonia, Ripley, Irving, Angola, Brocton, with others from Buffalo, Rochester and Pennsylvania.
Families were torn apart; a 2-year-old boy became an orphan, saved by a man lying near him in the wreck.
"The scene was heartrending beyond description," the Censor summated.
The tragedy touched, and continues to touch, the lives of many who are moved by the monumental loss that occurred on Christmas Eve more than a century ago. Wright and Jim Fincher, organizers of the upcoming hike and members of the Chautauqua Rails to Trails Board, invite all to attend the remembrance.
For more information, call 665-3246.