Vestal, New York: it’s a relatively small town in rural New York state, near the border of Pennsylvania and just under a four hour drive to New York City. The town houses around 28,000 people, has pristine neighborhoods, a couple of run-down ones and everything it between. It’s littered with grocery stores and gas stations just like anywhere else, as well as the occasional landmark or war memorial that it proudly displays to set it apart from its neighbors.
I travel near there often, and most recently took a walk with my girlfriend down the “rail trail,” a well maintained trail used for running, biking, walking the dog, or just taking a leisurely walk and enjoying the New York summer that everyone has spent so much time missing.
That’s where we ran across the sign pictured above. It reads:
Site of 1901
Lackawanna Train Wreck
2 freight trains collided
5 tons of dynamite exploded
causing a loud roar, great
ruin, and killing 5 RR men.
Signs like these are peppered across small American towns all over the country — they serve as reminders that these towns, however old or new, however unique or filled with cookie-cutter houses and large chain restaurants, they are all steeped in history. They have all been homes to scores of real, living human beings who have danced through childhood, laughed and loved, had their hearts broken in their teenage years, had children of their own, held difficult jobs or found fulfilling careers. Some have lived to be old and see their own families grow old as well, and others like those lost in the Lackawanna Train Wreck have had their lives tragically cut short.
These small towns are steeped in history, just like the major cities. Sure, Philadelphia can boast the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and Washington DC has the White House and countless memorials and statues — but these small towns have a rich history of their own, and those small histories mean as much to those who lived them as any statue or monument in a major city.
The Lackawanna Train Wreck occurred on June 8, 1901. A freight train, designated as “Train Number 61,” had stopped to replenish its water. Train Number 61 was also carrying a significant amount of dynamite.
From the opposite direction, a wildcat train barreled toward them. The incoming freight train sounded its whistle and slammed on its air brakes, but it was too late and they didn’t have enough time to avert disaster. Some were able to jump before the collision; others weren’t so lucky.
The ensuing explosion from the activated dynamite was massive, and it would make national news. Bits of the train were lifted and carried up to half a mile away from the site of the crash, and many of the crew were killed instantly. One body part was found a quarter of a mile away from the area. Those who survived attempted to help find survivors and save those who could be saved.
Among the dead were:
John P. Kelly — Head brakeman of the wildcat train
E. R. Polhamus — Conductor of Train 61
Elmer Polhamus — Trainman of Train 61
John Coulter — Fireman first locomotive of the wildcat train
Fred Witherby — Fireman second locomotive of the wildcat train
Henry Polhamus, direct relative to the other Polhamus casualties, lost his hand in the incident. Others were able to jump from the train before sustaining significant injuries. One of the engineers from the wildcat train, John Lonergan, awoke from the initial shock of the explosion (with one his eardrums blown out), and he worked to aid those in need until he collapsed. They later found a nail in his foot which was likely responsible.
The paper at the time said that nearly every window in Vestal lost “more or less of its window glass.”
Rail Trail images taken by the author.