Classic Tales of Old Dorp: Horrendous train wreck 88 years ago today took 18 lives; resident recalls scene

Former Gazette columnist Larry Hart revisits one of the great, tragic accidents in Schenectady Count

The Daily Gazette is reprinting excerpts of the late Larry Hart’s long-running column, “Tales of Old Dorp.” Today, Hart revisits one of the great, tragic accidents in Schenectady County’s history — the train crash in West Glenville that happened 88 years ago today. This column originally was published June 5, 1984.

A calamitous train wreck occurred in West Glenville, just west of Scotia, in the pre-dawn hours of June 9, 1920 — and it was of such magnitude that some who were children then remember it to this day.

It was shortly after 1 a.m. that a tremendous explosion reverberated throughout the area of Clute’s Crossing as eastbound New York Central Express No. 34 plowed into Accommodation No. 28, killing more than a dozen persons outright and injuring scores of others. Ed King, a nearby farmer, always would recall being awakened by that awful combined sound of the explosion of No. 34’s boiler and the ripping of wood and metal.

As the accident was reconstructed by a subsequent investigation, the accommodation or sleeping car train left Syracuse perhaps eight minutes ahead of the express. The latter was late and was trying to make up time as it neared the Glenville crossings of Rector’s, Clute’s and Hutchinson’s (at the west end of the former Scotia Navy Depot). Train No. 28 had stopped for some reason near Clute’s Crossing, where Barhydt and Vly Roads meet. The stop signals were turned on farther west of the crossings.

Signals unseen

However, No. 34’s engineer, Martin Doyle, who was 50 that day, failed to see the signals and his hurtling train crashed into the back of the train of sleeping cars and day coaches. Doyle was among those instantly killed.

All through the night and after dawn, rescuers worked among the wreckage of shattered wood and twisted metal, bringing out dead and injured and giving first aid. Most of the passengers were from the western part of the state, New York City and New England, the train having been made up in Syracuse. And, because of the hour, most of those aboard had been sleeping when the accident happened.

Relief trains brought doctors and nurses to the grisly scene and took the wounded to the city’s railroad station, where police cars and ambulances transported them to Ellis Hospital. The hospital was put on emergency alert shortly before 1:30 a.m. and its surgical teams worked through that long morning to save lives, which often hung in the balance. Two special wards were set aside to accommodate the victims brought in from the wreck.

It would be announced later that, in all, 18 persons died in the crash and about 60 had been injured. In his annual report for 1920, Ellis board president Willis T. Hanson Sr. observed: “The recent railway accident at Rector’s (Clute’s Crossing) has demonstrated clearly what the hospital is capable of doing in cases of emergency.”

Norman E. “Pink” Wurz, who with wife Jean still lives within an earshot of the fateful crossing site, remembers the incident well. He and his older brother Don were sleeping when, early that morning, their mother shouted from the foot of the stairs: “You boys had better get up. . . . There’s been a bad train wreck down the road!”

They hurried to the crossing, which by then was a scene of mass humanity gathered around unbelievable wreckage and suffering. It was about 500 feet east of Clute’s Crossing. So the accommodation train apparently had stopped between Clute’s and Hutchinson’s.

Onlookers converge

Word must have spread quickly, despite the lack of radio or television in those days, because people were arriving by foot, carriage and auto. As they converged on the scene, many walked out into an oat field on the north side of the tracks to get a better view of the wreck.

Norm Wurz said it was a 20-acre crop owned by dairyman Louis Van Buren on his farm but, after the last of the crowds of spectators were through milling around in the days to follow, there “wasn’t a grain of oats left in that whole field.” He heard that people had come from a radius of 100 miles to see the wreck site and watch the cleanup, which took several days.

Norm recalls it was examination day at Rector’s School, and “we ran to the school at the last minute to just make the 9 a.m. opening.”

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