Hearts and Hands Help in the Horror

by Jim Cheech Bonavito

This Angola Horror commemorative sign was stolen sometime during the end of September 2016

This Angola Horror commemorative sign was stolen sometime during the end of September 2016

Let me start by saying that I’m a lover of history – history of all kinds. And I’m especially a lover of our local history, the history of Evans, NY. That’s why I was so saddened and dismayed to learn of the theft of our historic marker commemorating “The Angola Horror.” Although the Angola Horror happened 149 years ago, it wasn’t until August 27, 2008 that a suitable marker was placed near the spot as a remembrance to those who perished. The marker was dedicated at the Mill Street bridge by the Evans Historical Society with officials from the Village of Angola in attendance. Unfortunately, the sign was stolen sometime in the last week of September 2016, from Mill Street and Gowans Road. Why? What was the marker’s value to the thief? What significance does it play in their life, that they felt compelled to take it?  I can only relate with my own love of this town – although the story behind the Angola Horror is something that we all share and pass down to our children and grandchildren. So for those new to our town, who don’t know much about the incident, I’ll tell you the story briefly.

Who would have dreamed that a certain cold December 18th  morning in the year 1867 would bring Angola, NY into the tearful eyes of a nation. New York Express of the Lake Shore Railway  leaving Cleveland’s Union Terminal at 6:40 AM would speed into a horrific page in history. It was due in Buffalo terminal by 1:30 PM, but first it would make a comfortable stop in Dunkirk and then another stop in Silver Creek for wood and water only. Now running late, the train would then be hurriedly back on its way into history, with its attempt to make up time, screaming though the woods and then through the village of Angola. Ironically, there was one memorable person who avoided this tragic part of Angola’s history, although his baggage did make it. It was John D. Rockefeller himself, who was running late that fateful day, and failed to board the train that became such a big part of the history of Angola, New York.

The train, which consisted of four baggage cars, one second class car and three first class cars, was ironically traveling the same historic tracks as “The Lincoln Special” did just 2 1/2 years before. Carrying the coffin of assassinated President Abraham Lincoln from Washington, D.C., the Lincoln Special stopped at 180 cities before arriving in Springfield, Illinois, where he would be buried on May 4. Nevertheless, each passenger car of the New York Express had a pot-bellied stove at each end to provide heat, and kerosene lamps to provide light. These amenities, and the fact that the train was running about two hours and forty five minutes late, may have added to the horrifying events to come.

The Big Sister Creek bridge as it would have appeared at the time of the wreck.

The Big Sister Creek bridge as it would have appeared at the time of the wreck.

Experts at the time blamed a “frog” for causing a defective axle to slip off the rails. A railway “frog” or “switch” is a mechanical installation enabling railway trains to be guided from one track to another. This could be at a railway junction or where a siding branches off. It is a crossing point of two rails and in this case, the rails were of different sizes. Apparently because of train crossing the frog or switch, witnesses were sure that the last car was swaying side to side causing it to jump the tracks. When the breaks were applied – at best a futile attempt to slow the momentum – the train could not be halted in time to prevent if from crossing the bridge over Big Sisters Creek. The swaying last car uncoupled and plunged into the creek. The momentum of the train dragged the second to the last car to the other side of the bridge, but it too uncoupled and slid down the icy, snowy gorge. A loud crash would scream throughout the wooded area.

The second to the last car would come to rest forty feet down the gully. Fortunately only one lonely soul was lost in that second to the last car. But the passengers in the last car were less fortunate. Approximately 49 lives were lost that evening to the angels. Most were burned alive from the hot embers being thrown all over the cars from the potbelly stoves. The kerosene lamps supplied the fuel to intensify the flames and the smoke of the inferno. Cries for help, screams from pain and injury, the echoing of medal on medal and wood on wood, and the sound of glass breaking filled the air with a haunting song that the residents of the village heard the rest of that night. The event was dubbed “The Horror of Angola.”

The village folks came to help the ones captured in the nightmare before them. People came from their homes to help with blankets, towels and supplies. Businesses donated bandages and wrappings, and other first aid essentials. Brave volunteers, forming a human chain,  lowered down into the gully to pull out the injured and burned, carrying victims up the embankment to carriages waiting to take them to medical care. Angolans opened their doors, their hands and their hearts and came together to assist those who needed their help without question, without delay, without legal interference. Their only commitment was to best deal with this tragic incident, to treat the injured, secure proper disposition of the dead, and to end a horrific time of pain for its victims.

The Angola Horror has been documented in books and articles,  and in films and documentaries as well.  And after 149 years, a second marker was finally placed in Buffalo’s Forrest Lawn Cemetery on Saturday, May 14, 2016, as a memorial to at least 17 unknown deceased passengers who were buried in an unmarked mass grave. I don’t know about anyone else, but it saddened me to hear that a century and a half passed before these poor souls were finally properly acknowledged.

After 149 years, a marker was finally placed in Buffalo's Forest Lawn Cemetery on May 14, 2016 as a memorial to at least 17 unknown deceased passengers.

After 149 years, a marker was finally placed in Buffalo’s Forest Lawn Cemetery on May 14, 2016 as a memorial to at least 17 unknown deceased passengers.

But, as a native and life-long resident of Angola I have to say now, that although this was a most terrible event that resulted in a horrible loss of 49 souls, Angola and its residents made their mark on the pages of history. The Village of Angola and it residents who volunteered that fateful day, went into history as saviors to those in need. I’m proud to say that my Village pulled together and gave of themselves to help. They came, they saw, they acted -instead of reacted -to handle with courage, generosity and compassion, the situation in which they found themselves. May they always be an example of what our small town is made of. To this day, I’m proud to be a native son of the Village of Angola, NY!