Aboard the 18 car train were 128 Union guards from the Veteran Reserve Corps, and 833 Confederate prisoners of war being taken from Point Lookout, MD to the newly constructed Camp Rathbun at Elmira, NY. It was built to house 10,000 inmates.
They began their journey by steamer traveling along the Atlantic coast from Maryland to New Jersey. Here they were switched to railroad for the final 273 miles to Elmira.
Then tragedy struck.
A mile and a half from Shohola the track passed through “King and Fuller’s Cut” which had only 50 feet of forward visibility as the track negotiated a series of blind bends. The trains collided head-on with a crash so fierce that it was said that locals “felt it as an earthquake.”
The combined speed was more than 30 mph, and propelled the wood stacked in each engine’s tenders forward into the cabs; killing both engineers and firemen. The wooden box cars were telescoped into each other.
Of the 37 men in the car immediately behind the engine, 36 were killed outright, the only survivor being thrown clear. Most casualties occurred in the first three box cars, those riding further back escaped death though many were injured. A ring of uninjured guards was formed around the wreck but despite this five Confederate prisoners escaped and were never recaptured.
The dead were buried in unmarked graves next to the track, where they remained for 47 years until 1911 when they were moved to the Woodlawn National Cemetery at Elmira. The Shohola Railroad Historical Society houses a museum dedicated to the wreck in a caboose stationed permanently in Shohola.
Words of Wisdom for July 15, 2016
“The two locomotives were raised high in the air, face-to-face against each other, like giants grappling…The front (car) of our train was jammed into a space less than six feet. The two cars behind it were almost as badly wrecked. There were bodies impaled on iron rods and splintered beams. Headless trunks were mangled between the telescoped cars.”
— Frank Evans, a Union guard describing the scene the Great Shohola train wreck, on July 15, 1864