Focus on History: Spectacular Amsterdam train wreck

One of the most spectacular train wrecks in Amsterdam involved the Empire State Express and the New

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 the north side of the Mohawk River. There were two collisions at about 12:15 p.m. on April 8, 1918.

The Empire State Express was westbound when it crashed into the wreckage of a freight train that had just derailed near the foot of Henrietta Street, according to Tony Pacelli’s history book, “Past and Present.” The engineer, John R. Botts of Albany, and the fireman, William Barringer, were thrown about 600 feet when the engine’s boiler exploded. Botts died that day, and Barringer died three days later. An eastbound passenger train, the New England Express, subsequently crashed into the derailed cars.

It was considered miraculous that there were only two fatalities among the 60 people injured. Edward Davies of Syracuse, the engineer of the New England Express, suffered a fractured skull. Davies saw the collision of the Empire State and the freight train, but his passenger train couldn’t stop in time.

Eyewitness Helen J. Murphy told Pacelli, “I recall a steam whistle on one of the engines continued to blow for some time.”

Pacelli printed pictures showing horses and passengers being led to safety. Another picture showed people under umbrellas, looking at passenger and freight cars scattered over the four tracks of the railroad main line, near Erie Canal Lock 11.

Fort Johnson’s outhouse

Old Fort Johnson’s historic 18th century privy, tipped on its side by flood waters this year, has been raised up. Santos Construction used a crane to lift the privy, which may have been used by George Washington on his Mohawk Valley tour at the end of the Revolutionary War.

“We’re very pleased that we could finally get it standing again,” said Alessa Wylie of Old Fort Johnson. Some five feet of water flowed into the Old Fort during the floods, reaching into the first floor. The visitor center had close to two feet of water inside.

A fundraiser for the Old Fort is being held today and Sunday, Nov. 26-27, at Amsterdam City Hall on Church Street. The “Deck the Doors” event features 50 festive wreaths that visitors can bid on during a silent auction. I’ll be there from 1 to 3 p.m. today to talk about local history and sign copies of my book, “Stories from the Mohawk Valley.” The wreaths will be on display at City Hall through Dec. 6, and bids will continue to be taken during normal business hours.

Reader questions

Lou Aldi of Amsterdam wrote, “Many years ago I was told by the father of one of my friends that the trees planted around the Lynch Middle School represent fallen soldiers of World War II from Amsterdam. Do you know that to be true?” Replies are welcome.

“I am looking for some help with my family genealogy and my search for a picture of my grandfather,” wrote Michael Battaglia of Mayfield. “It seems he was quite camera shy and the only picture I had seen of him was destroyed by some flooding.”

Michael’s grandfather was Marino Battaglia, and according to a city directory, he worked at Mohawk Carpet in 1936. He came to this country with his wife Rose in 1905 and lived initially at 4 Reid St. In 1935 he was at 73 Division St., and at his death he lived at 73 Academy St. He passed away in 1938 and was buried in St. Michael’s Cemetery. He was active in the Isola Salina Society, Quarter Century Club of Mohawk Mills and First and Second Ward Democratic clubs.

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