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HIDDEN HISTORY: A horrific train wreck in 1919

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Posted: Sunday, January 23, 2011 2:00 am | Updated: 10:04 am, Wed Dec 24, 2014.

Jan. 12, 1919. It was a cold, clear winter's night across Western New York, with temperatures well below zero.

At 2:54 a.m., New York Central's Train No. 17, called the Wolverine, pulled out of the Rochester train station bound for Buffalo. Thirteen minutes later, Train No. 11, the Southwestern Limited, left Rochester, also bound for Buffalo.

Both trains, which originated in New York City, were running late. Both were also on a deadly collision course.

The Wolverine and the Southwestern Limited were each traveling west on track 1 of four main tracks. Automatic block signals were in place and were designed to warn trains of impending collisions so they could either stop or transfer to another track.

But, for some reason, the warning system proved ineffective.

As the Wolverine approached a steep grade at South Byron in Genesee County, its engineer informed the tower man that his train didn't have enough power to get over the grade. He requested a heavy engine to hitch onto the front of the train and pull it through. The Wolverine was stopped on the tracks awaiting the engine.

A flagman was sent back with a lighted fuse to halt the onrushing Southwestern, running less than 15 minutes behind. 

But the Southwestern's engineer John Friedley apparently didn't see any warning signals and he only saw the light from the flagman when his train was just a few car lengths from the Wolverine.

It was too late to stop. At 3:36 a.m., the Southwestern slammed into the rear sleeping car of the idle Wolverine at a destructive 50 miles per hour.

The impact knocked the Wolverine about 250 feet forward. The Wolverine's last Pullman sleeping car, called the Canfield, crashed into the second-last sleeping car, the Croton Falls. The Croton Falls was pushed up at an angle, then crashed through the Canfield from end to end.

The sleeping passengers inside the Canfield didn't have a chance. Almost all were killed instantly, many of their bodies crushed and mangled beyond recognition. In most cases, passenger lists were the only means of identification.

In all, 22 people died in the South Byron wreck — 21 in the actual crash and one more who succumbed the next day in a Batavia hospital. It was one of the deadliest train wrecks in Western New York history.

Survivors and some of the dead began arriving in Batavia by 8 a.m. As news of the tragedy spread, a crowd formed at the New York Central Station. Witnesses saw ''the bodies, already stiff from the zero weather, rather than death, unloaded and placed on trucks and in baskets,'' according to The Daily News.

Despite the horrific death toll, there were relatively few injuries. All of the dead had come from the Canfield sleeper car. Otherwise, only 10 injuries were reported, seven of them minor.

The tragedy made national news. A front-page headline in the New York Times screamed ''21 killed in sleep as Limited rams the Wolverine.''

The Daily News published a rare extra edition and ''there was a crowd on hand eagerly waiting to get copies of the paper.'' 

As with any tragedy, there were poignant stories to tell.

A mother was found dead with her two young children, ages 3 and 4. Several returning World War I veterans were killed, including Franklin E. Leonard Jr. of Grand Rapids, Mich. He was positively identified by a Masonic ring on his finger which was inscribed ''American Expeditionary Forces, 1917.'' Another deceased man was ID'd by the name on his service ring, which showed he had served on the Mexican border in 1916.

The only train employee killed was a black porter from New York City named Ballard Jones, who served in the Canfield sleeping car. His body was so mangled, he could only be identified by a few shreds of his clothing.

All in all, a terrible tragedy, but could it have been prevented?


At first, blame for the South Byron wreck focused on John Friedley, Southwestern Limited's engineer. A former Batavia resident who lived in Buffalo, he was a 20-year railroad veteran and had an excellent safety record.

Investigators questioned why Friedley hadn't heeded the system's warning signals. Friedley, in turn, said the signals had indicated a clear track.

A preliminary investigation in Syracuse a few days after the wreck appeared to corroborate Friedley's story, placing more blame on the New York Central Railroad itself. Several experts testified that the company had neglected to install more modern equipment that might have prevented the tragedy, or at least reduced the death toll.

One expert bluntly accused the railroad of putting profits above the safety of its passengers, according to the Jan. 16 edition of The Daily News.

''It has been declared that the railroad has balanced the cost of trying out new systems of train control against the cost of settling wreck claims and found that it is cheaper to pay the claims,'' said Frank Sprague, president of the Sprague Safety Control and Signal Corporation of New York City.

Ultimately, train wrecks such as South Byron did lead to improved safety measures that made train travel less dangerous. Unfortunately, many hundreds of train passengers died before these safety measures were put into place.

Among these were the 22 unfortunate souls killed in the South Byron wreck of 1919.

NEXT WEEK'S HIDDEN HISTORY: Mobsters arrested in Batavia, 1970

(Daily News Managing Editor Mark Graczyk writes a regular blog called ''Mark My Words'' that appears at ''Hidden History'' is an occasional feature that focuses on little-known or unusual incidents in local history. Mark welcomes comments either through the website or by e-mailing him at

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