PORTLAND - The little railroad station in the town of Portland was once considered the heart of a small neighborhood, complete with a post office, a hotel and a scattering of nearby houses. Its real name was Prospect Station, but it was known locally as the Fish & Barnes Stand, named after the people who had settled near a crossroad in the town.
It was started in 1868, and was situated 6 miles north of Mayville and roughly halfway to Brocton. Every day, the Buffalo, Corry & Pittsburgh railroad would stop at the station carrying passengers and mail or oil-part of a phenomenon that was just taking flight: the creation of a railroad that brought important social and economic change to a young America. A year after the Portland Station was built, perhaps the greatest physical feat of the 19th century came to an end as the last stakes of the First Transcontinental Railroad were driven into the railway at Promontory, Utah.
What the fledgling Buffalo, Corry & Pittsburgh road lacked in fame, it made up for in utility, carrying goods and passengers from Corry, Pa. to Brocton. The owners of the road had declared bankruptcy in the summer of 1872, according to the Fredonia Censor, and it had been put up for auction. But things were looking up. By Christmastime, the Allegheny Valley Railroad was considering its purchase, hoping to create a direct line between Buffalo and Pittsburgh, and eventually, the line would become part of the famed Pennsylvania Railroad.
Train travel felt luxurious. The bumpy roads of stagecoach travel became a thing of the past; it was dry and somewhat comfortable, and it was infinitely easier to predict an arrival time.
But our love affair with trains had a downside.
Serious accidents were part of the cost of doing business; preventive safety measures wouldn't be in place until the end of the 19th century.
A HOLIDAY TRAGEDY
On Dec. 24, 1872, as many as 50 passengers were making their way towards the Prospect Station in a single overcrowded passenger car, including a young honeymoon couple, several children accompanied by their parents and others who were presumably making their way to holiday celebrations in New York state. Their luggage and packages had been loaded in a baggage car, and they'd been escorted to the passenger car warmed by the coals of an onboard stove. The stoves were a necessary luxury in cold regions, but they were primitive and dangerous. Embers from the stove could be ignited, especially in a wreck.
Before 3 that afternoon, the Portland Station was presumably quiet, awaiting the arrival of the Buffalo, Corry & Pittsburgh. The little train station, in its snowy embrace, was just moments away from being witness to a legendary disaster in Chautauqua County- one that still captures the imagination more than a century later.
The train was not more than a 1/4 mile from the station and slowing down when the flange broke off the left rear wheel on the tender - described as a small car attached to the steam locomotive for carrying wood or coal. If fate played its mighty hand, its handiwork can be seen in the timing of the incident: the train had just reached a long trestle, and as air brakes were three months away from being patented by George Westinghouse, stopping a train was a difficult task.
In what must have seemed an endless moment, the engine cleared the trestle, but the railroad cars it was towing wouldn't have the same destiny. Both the baggage car and the passenger car went over the trestle and fell 25 feet into an icy ravine, crushing the passengers inside. Two men - the brakeman and the baggage man - were able to cling to the outside of the cars as they were tossed over the side of the trestle like a child's toys. One of the men was hurled past the wreck; the other was trapped beneath a car.
When the train came to rest, there must have been that moment of silence that follows a disaster, before even the victims and the ticking seconds could register the horror. There wasn't time for survivors to collect themselves, as the embers from the stove would follow fate's march: fire broke out and seized the day, snatching any small chance of hope for anyone still alive.
The brakeman was the only survivor capable of summoning help, and he ran 1/4 mile to Prospect Station. When he returned, he, along with the engineer and a trackman, began furiously shoveling snow onto the flames until they were able to pull out four survivors.
It took a while for help to arrive-some reports have it at an hour - and even then the list of rescuers only totaled four or five. They did what they could to slow the fire, but it was too late to save anyone else. If there was one miracle to hang onto that afternoon, somewhere beyond the commotion stood a little boy of 18 months and a little girl of 2 who had both survived, according to an account by the Fredonia Censor. The girl's mother was gravely injured; the little boy was orphaned. And as if to salt the community's wounds, the young honeymooners perished as well.
Twenty people died that day, and 23 were badly injured. Some reports say that 12 more people died later of their injuries.
A reporter from the Censor said, "The scene was heartrending beyond description."
Newspaper photographs were still years away, and unlike our modern disasters, there were no helicopters arriving on scene, no reporters to give 24-hour updates. What happened there could only be recounted by the people who lived it and the few who could get there to help.
The two closest neighbors to the station rallied to action - their homes became the hospital where doctors came and went; they were the soothers; the reporters and the nurses. "The neighbors are untiring in their efforts to care for the injured," the paper said.
BRINGING THE INCIDENT TO LIFE
What remains of the disaster are our distant recollections of it-and newspaper stories buried in microfiche. This Christmas Eve, James Fincher, trail manager of the Chautauqua County Rails to Trails, will bring the incident back to life by leading a mini hike from the Prospect Station trailhead 1/4 mile to the scene of the train accident.
Fincher will be accompanied by Robert Wright-a Portland resident who lives near the site of the old train station and has an interest and knowledge of the tragedy. Names of the victims will be read, followed by a moment of silence.
The ravine has been since filled with dirt, but memories still linger there. Even as the hikers bask in the warm glow of the holiday, they will brave the cold and circle back to the tragedy in Portland, marking 140 years since the train wreck occurred.
Those interested in joining the mini hike can meet Fincher at the Prospect Station trailhead at 2:30 p.m. on Monday. Call 665-3246 for directions and information.
Sources: "Mayville: A View Through Time" by Devon Taylor
Fredonia Censor: Jan. 1, 1873
Margot Russell is a freelance writer who has also worked as a reporter and a news broadcaster. She is currently an international tour director, and owner of Blue World Journeys - a tour company specializing in small group tours to Peru and Machu Picchu.
Margot grew up in Amherst, but spent her summers by Chautauqua Lake. Before moving to Lakewood in 2012, she lived on Cape Cod, Mass. for more than 20 years. She is happy to finally be back by Chautauqua Lake.