Rails To Trails president discusses Christmas Eve tragedy
PORTLAND — Chautauqua Rails to Trails is inviting community members to join them in remembering the 20 souls that were tragically lost in a northern Chautauqua County train accident 145 years ago.
Every year, the group convenes at the Prospect Station Trailhead on Christmas Eve to visit the site of the Cross-Cut Railroad disaster in Portland on Dec. 24, 1872. This year’s event will be held Sunday.
“This is an unfortunate event that happened in our local history on Christmas Eve, and so we commemorate the victims of this accident every year on Christmas Eve,” said Jim Fincher, Chautauqua Rails to Trails president. “It’s a short service, but we want to remember those who died. I get to talk a bit about the accident itself, and we’ll see if there’s any questions, have a moment of silence in memory of the poor folks who lost their lives, then head back to the trailhead and have some refreshments.”
Fincher said the group is to meet at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Prospect Station Trailhead, which is located at the intersection of Prospect Station, Fish and Barnes roads. From there, the group will hike approximately 250 yards south to the spot where the accident occurred for the brief ceremony.
The 20 lives were lost when a Buffalo, Corry and Pittsburgh train went off the trestle at Prospect Station and the passenger coach burned. The cause of the crash, Fincher 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. Many of the passengers died instantly when the car plunged from the bridge to the gulf 25 feet below. The few who survived the fall were killed by a fire that soon erupted inside the car.
In October, Chautauqua Rails to Trails unveiled and dedicated a wheel and axle truck system at the site of the accident. 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, and a piece of rail, and was installed utilizing a 20-ton truck at the very site of 1872 wreck.
“It’s a beautiful section of a tragic piece of history,” Fincher said. “It allows me to point to the wheel and show the flange that broke.”
Chautauqua Rails to Trails is a nonprofit corporation whose reason for existence is to acquire, develop and maintain multi-purpose recreational trails for public use on or near abandoned railroad rights of way. It provides safe, attractive trails for non-motorized trail users. The trails wind through wetlands, pine forests, hardwood forests, pastures and vineyards. Observing and learning about nature, about the history of the area and getting healthy physical exercise is what trail users can expect.
For more information about Sunday’s commemmoration ceremony, contact Fincher at 665-3246 or visit Chautauqua Rails to Trails’ website at chaurtt.org or its Facebook page.