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Tuesday, April 19, 2022

The Gibson Train Wreck

by Maude Ennick
©2002 All rights reserved by author.

Editor’s note: At 5:21 AM on July 4, 1912, the worst rear-end collision in railroading history, at the time, happened three miles east of Corning, NY at the Gibson train station - near today's Corning Country Club. It involved three trains that had left Elmira. Freight train No. 393, passenger train No. 9, and Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Express train No. 11. Just minutes after leaving Elmira, No. 11 rear-ended stopped train No. 9 and the stopped engine of No. 393 in Gibson, New York. The great accident left thirty-nine people dead and eighty-eight injured. Ms. Ennick's great uncles Frank and Henry Roemmelt were among the survivors.

It was beginning to be a beautiful Fourth of July, 1912. Sightseers and daytrippers had boarded trains all the way down the line as far as Brooklyn and Newark bound for the sites of Buffalo and Niagara Falls. On schedule, Delaware, Lackawanna, & Western freight train No. 393 left Elmira, New York at 3.50 and after experiencing engine difficulties it was pulling into the siding area of the Gibson [New York] Station to address the problem. After about twenty of its cars cleared the tracks, a drawhead broke and left several remaining unpowered freight cars stranded on the main line. The conductor quickly threw the signal to warn No. 9 of upcoming trouble and to prevent it from crashing into train No. 393’s cars still on the main line. Gibson Station’s flagman, Edward Lane, posted the warning signals including a “warning automatic semaphore” one mile east of Gibson, and sent a man down the tracks with a red flag to a point a half mile from Gibson. He also posted a “double danger semaphore signal” at 300 yards from the rear of train No. 393.

No. 9 left Elmira at 4:47AM bound for Buffalo and Niagara Falls with holiday excursionists from Brooklyn, Scranton, Binghamton, and Elmira. The engineer was T. J. Hartnett of Elmira, and the conductor was Howard Staples of Elmira. As Hartnett came into Gibson he saw the warnings, slowed down, and finally came to a full stop. Hartnett found No. 393 in trouble while uncoupling the cars. It was slow work for No. 393 and so Hartnett in No. 9 prepared to help push No. 393’s remaining cars into the siding.

Shortly after 5:00AM, D. L. & W. Express No. 11 left Elmira carrying the United States mail and more Fourth of July excursionists on their way to Buffalo and Niagara Falls. Engineer William Schroeder held the throttle of the 100-ton engine as it came booming through Big Flats. There was a thick early morning mist rising from the Chemung River.

Simultaneously in Gibson, many passengers on No. 9 had gotten off to stretch their legs and walked along the tracks while No. 9 moved No. 393’s cars to the siding. Down the line at the half-mile warning, Flagman Edward Lane already saw the impending tragedy - No. 11 missed all three warnings and plowed into the back of No. 9, pushing into the back of No. 393.

As the day, and days following unfolded; facts and rumors flew. According to reports made by Lackawanna officials, Schroeder was one of their oldest and best-trained engineers. As usual, he was giving “everything he had” to get to Buffalo and Niagara Falls will the mail closely behind No. 9 as he had done repeatedly many times before. Through the straight stretch in Big Flats engineers liked to run 80 and even 90 mph., Schroeder's estimated speed was 65 mph when he passed the first warning and was still at 65 mph when he passed the flagman. He saw No. 9 at 100 yards in front of him. He jammed on the reverse without cutting off the steam. The quick reversal of power was too great, and the train jumped the tracks. The momentum caused the train to be a projectile with only 50 yards to impact. The reversal of power threw Schroeder out of the cab’s window, and he landed on his head and shoulder, and he lay near the tracks as his train shot past him and into the back of No. 9. It ploughed straight through No. 9 demolishing its last three coaches and squeezed together the Pullman cars until “they looked like a closed accordion.” Then it stopped. Schroeder awoke hurt and surveyed the “inferno.” Some passengers and crew were alive and moving. Among the injured passengers from Elmira were Bernard Strauss, Frank and George Roemmelt, Herman Hart, Edna Keigler, and M. H. Taylor.

Mangles bodies lay “in every way.” Schroeder could not speak or move for three hours and then wandered away and walked back to Elmira - a distance of 14-and-a-half miles. Elmira’s undertakers worked all day and night and by 9:00PM, all the bodies were ready for burial. Corning was not in a mood to celebrate the Fourth and quickly cancelled its fireworks display. Rescuers took the living passengers to Corning. The injured passengers were taken to Elmira’s St. Joseph’s Hospital.

William Schroeder lived on the second floor of 1015 Lake Street in Elmira, about 4 blocks from the train yard, and his attending physician reported him to be in a state of “complete mental collapse.” His doctor recommended “complete quiet for many days.”

When word of the wreck reached the railroad authorities in Scranton, Pennsylvania, investigators began quick journeys to Gibson. Superintendent E. M. Rine [in Scranton] stated that Flagman Lane “is held equally responsible with Schroeder for not properly flagging a train.” Schroeder was responsible for “running past signals.” In his report, Rine stated, “Train No. 9 was composed of seven sleeping Pullmans, a buffet car, and two coaches, and was stopped at Gibson - where a freight train blocked the main line. Edward Lane, flagman of train No. 9, went 2,000 feet with flags and fuses to stop the express train due at the station in a few minutes. He set and lighted the fuses - green in color - meaning ‘caution’ and waited for the train. Lane claimed that Schroeder’s train ‘came at a high rate of speed and shot past him without seeing the warnings.' Lackawanna cited Lane as partly to blame because Lackawanna’s Book of Rules states: Torpedoes shall be used in foggy or stormy weather.”

Lane said he heard the train coming and expected it to slacken its speed. Officials said Lane failed in his duty by “not placing torpedoes on the tracks to warn the express train.”

On July 9, the Elmira Star-Gazette reported that the “train had missed its first warning because Fireman Huntley was talking to Schroeder about too much water in the boiler.” They adjusted the boiler, and as Schroeder turned around to talk to Huntley, and the crash came. On July 10, the newspaper reported, “Schroeder’s  wife was not home [on July 3] but he was home with relatives.” In the morning (July 3), he repaired the front doorbell to be sure that the railroad's call person could wake him. He left home for [Elmira’s downtown] at 12 noon, was gone for two hours, and then returned home and was with women relatives until 6:00 PM. Then he went to one of their houses for dinner. He came back with them to his house around 7.00 PM. Then he went to someone’s house on Oak Street and came back before 8:30 PM. Around 9:00PM he went downtown again and visited several saloons. The newspaper reported that Timothy Houlihan saw him at 9:30 PM on Lake Street and believed him to be sober. Charles Sharp, a waiter at the Senate Café, claimed he saw Schroeder first at 12 midnight on July 3/4. He believed Schroeder to have taken “two drinks of gin” before 12. Schroeder ordered a steak but “did not drink alcohol.” After, Schroeder went with Sharp to Falsey’s Café. Sharp had a[n] alcoholic drink and Schroeder had mineral water. They were only there five minutes. Then they went to Kelly’s Saloon where they each had another drink (Schroeder had another mineral water). Schroeder supposedly went home around 12:30, but Charles Klapproth, a saloon owner, saw him downtown [on Lake Street] at 12:30 and reported Schroeder as “sober.” On July 11, the Star-Gazette reported that Schroeder returned home between 12:00 and 1:00 AM a few hours before he took his ill-fated run. The railroad call boy came twice, once at 3:00AM and because Schroeder did not respond, again at 4:10AM. Schroeder responded to the second doorbell ring. Sharp said the next time that [Sharp] saw Schroeder was after the wreck and [Schroeder] told him that “the fireman was to blame.” On July 15, the Star-Gazette reported that Schroeder said that he had two drinks of gin for rheumatism in the whole day before the wreck. Schroeder said he was not on Lake Street at 12:30 as he went to sleep at 12:10.

Schroeder worked 42-and-a-half years for the D. L. & W., and was the engineer of train No. 11 for nine years. He had lived in Elmira for twenty-six years, and before that he lived in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

On July 16, the newspaper reported the “train had similar problems [the boiler problem] earlier but was working [when it left Elmira].” “They [Schroeder and Huntley] were looking at the foaming water in the boiler and trying to fix the two injectors. It worked for two minutes. Schroeder went out on the running board. Between the mechanical problem and his conversation with Huntley, Schroeder missed the three signals. He did see the rear of No. 9 and pulled the reverse lever thinking he was pulling back the throttle.

Schroeder was charged with murder and spent the rest of the summer and fall holed up in his house. The trial was to take place in Bath, New York in November [1912]. The day the trial was to commence it was decided that there was "insufficient evidence" and Schroeder's case was dismissed much to the courtroom's surprise. Schroeder, though not guilty in the eyes of the law, suffered the rest of his life with taunts and jeers.

Today’s major train wrecks in United States are well documented, but in researching incidents of many years ago, the facts are less easily found. The Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) began its work studying railroad train wrecks in 1911 and continued into the 1970's when the NTSB assumed their role. There are only 80 reports for 1912, but the statistics in the report on the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad wreck of October 3rd (Volume 2 File 091) show a total of 13,698 accidents that killed 772 people and injured 15,096. The reports give a good insight into the workings of the railroads in the early 1900s and the fight of the ICC for improvements in operations and infrastructure to reduce the transportation industry’s accident rate.

Brand, John.  Telephone conversion, July 1993.
Elmira Advertiser, July 5, 1912.
Elmira Star-Gazette, July 13 -17, 1912.

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