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Rail corridor, river formula for disasters

Saturday, June 29, 2013
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Floods and train wrecks are unfortunately common in Mohawk Valley history. A river runs through the valley. And the valley is one of America’s major rail corridors.

Floods

The devastating floods from Tropical Storms Irene and Lee took place in 2011. The flood of 2006 did great damage in Canajoharie, Fort Plain, Fonda, Fultonville and other locations.

The flood of 1996 in Fonda helped convince officials to relocate the county jail from its previous location near the river in Fonda to its present spot on higher ground in Glen.

The Schoharie Creek can be dangerous. In 1987 raging waters took down the Thruway bridge over the Schoharie, claiming 10 lives. Fort Plain’s Otsquago Creek flooded in 1981, destroying the historic limestone aqueduct that carried the Erie Canal over the creek.

The spring of 1958 brought major flooding along the Mohawk River. After that event, the Army Corps of Engineers built retaining walls along the south side of the river in Amsterdam.

The Mohawk Valley was hard hit by a flood in February 1938. A carpet mill on the river bank fell into the swollen river, battered by ice floes. Amsterdam’s gas supply was cut off because water surrounded the gashouse, near what is now Riverlink Park.

Bert DeRose, who was 6 years old at the time, said his uncles worked for the city and were assigned to bridge duty. “Sure enough, the river began to run over its bank. I remember my uncle running to inform us that we had to leave right away.”

An early March flood in 1913 washed out the bridge at Canajoharie. Amsterdam’s Mohawk River bridge was taken out by high water on March 27, 1913. The temporary bridge that replaced the fallen span was itself demolished by a flood one year to the day later.

Train wrecks

Eight Mexican workers were killed on June 15, 1945 when struck by a speeding Water Level Limited passenger train as the men worked on track maintenance just east of Amsterdam. The Mexicans were in the U.S. working on the railroad because so many American men were at war. The eight Mexicans were buried in a mass grave at St. Mary’s Cemetery. Their bodies were taken to the cemetery in a procession of eight hearses.

Diane Hale Smith of Amsterdam did research on the accident. “I located their unmarked burial place, using cemetery records, and made arrangements for a headstone and urn to be put over the mass grave.”

On May 6, 1924, the Twentieth Century Limited passenger train struck an automobile, also just east of Amsterdam, and killed eight people: John Acee, his wife, their three children, Mrs. Acee’s sister, the sister’s daughter and an Italian immigrant. Of Syrian origin, Acee was a clothing merchant on the South Side.

Acee apparently had trouble shifting the car when he was on the tracks. The family dog was the only creature to survive — it ran down the tracks. There was a huge crowd at the funeral procession and funeral director Vincent Rossi said the Acee gravestones at St. Mary’s Cemetery in Fort Johnson are still well-tended.

One of the most spectacular train wrecks in Amsterdam involved the Empire State Express and the New England Express, two of the fastest passenger trains on the New York Central main line. On April 8, 1918, the Empire State Express collided with a freight train near Henrietta Street in the West End at about 12:15 p.m. An eastbound passenger train, the New England Express, subsequently crashed into the derailed cars. The engineer of the Empire State, John R. Botts of Albany, and the fireman, William Barringer, died from their injuries. Sixty people were injured.

Bob Cudmore is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.

 
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