Angola, NY – The holidays brought with them a dark reminder of the limits of human ingenuity. A rail disaster a week before Christmas in the southern Erie County Village of Angola two years after the end of the Civil War became a national news story.
In December of 18-67 some 50 people died when two cars of the Lake Shore Express ran off the rails on the bridge over Big Sister Creek. The newspapers called it the "Angola Horror".
As WBFO News contributor and Channel 2 Senior Correspondent Rich Kellman reports, the crash led to reforms in rail safety, including development of air brakes and the banning of wooden cars.
The rail line that runs through the village of Angola has been running past Schultz's hardware store for nearly 150 years. Phil Vankoughnet bought the store from the Shultz family in 1980.
"They go by so regularly throughout the years, i don't even hear them anymore," said Vankoughnet.
. "30 years since I've owned the store, 39 since I've been here," said Vankoughnet.
The store itself has been here since 1861. Founded six years before the rail line brought a great tragedy to the small village. It was exactly a week before Christmas, 1867. A train from Cleveland to buffalo ran off the tracks over big sister creek.
The crash killed some 50 people, most of them burned to death. It became known as the Angola horror.
"It was in 1867, right at this time of the year," said Deputy Mayor Bill Houston was born and raised in Angola.
"Two train cars went off the big sister creek bridge. the first one fell down on the ice on the creek and burned up something like 50 people," said Houston.
The cars were made of wood. They were lit by kerosene lanterns and heated by coal-burning stoves. The first car fell into the creek gorge and became an inferno.
"The people lasted maybe five, ten minutes, screaming and hollering and trying to get out, but the people who were trying to rescue the people just said, all of a sudden it was just quiet and they were all dead," said Houston.
A second car also derailed, but all but one person were believed rescued. 19 or 20 of the victims were burned beyond recognition. A memorial service for all the victims was held at the Exchange Street train depot in Buffalo three days before Christmas.
19 wooden boxes with the unidentified remains were taken to Forest Lawn Cemetery where they were buried. If you go there today, you'll find just an open plot of land. No headstone, no memorial.
"No markings at all," said Forest Lawn researcher Ed Dibble.
"The railroad company said they were going to put a headstone up but they never did, said Dibble. 19 people buried there.
Looking back at those days, Phil Vankoughnet wonders.
"Sometimes I wonder what the people there were thinking. some of the survivors, they brought into people's homes, and they turned one home, I think, into a temporary hospital," said Vankoughnet.
You might compare the shock then to the trauma today after the plane crash in Clarence in 2009. A combination of sorrow and anger brought people to their feet, demanding reform in regional airline safety.
The Angola crash spurred public outrage. That led to the banning of wooden passenger cars and open stoves, the development of air brakes, and standardization of track widths.
Missing among the casualties that day was a rich businessman from Cleveland. his name was John D. Rockefeller. Just by chance, he missed the train that morning. he took a later train that day. From Angola, he telegraphed his wife back in Cleveland. "Thank God I am unharmed."
Rockefeller went on to form the standard oil company and drove his competitors out of business. But he became a great philanthropist, and his grandson, Nelson Rockefeller, became Governor of New York.
But consider this, says Bill Houston.
"What about the 50 people that died, what might they have done?," said Houston.
The village and the Evans historical society put up a sign near the site of the disaster recently to remind people of what happened here. And to think about what might have been.
"It was near Christmas. That disrupted so many families, and many of them could have been people that did all kinds of stuff in the world," said Houston.