FOCUS ON HISTORY: Three Amsterdam train tragedies

PHOTOGRAPHER:

Three Amsterdam accidents involving New York Central passenger trains in the 20th century resulted in a total of 18 fatalities.

On April 8, 1918, the Empire State Express collided with a freight train near Henrietta Street in the West End shortly after Noon. An eastbound passenger train, the New England Express, subsequently crashed into the derailment. 

The engineer of the Empire State, John R. Botts of Albany, and the fireman, William Barringer, died. It was considered miraculous that there were only two fatalities among the 60 people injured.

Eight lives were lost May 6, 1924 when the Twentieth Century Limited passenger train struck a car being driven across the tracks near Dicaprio’s produce farm just east of Amsterdam.

The automobile in the 1924 accident was driven by John Acee, 45, a clothing merchant on the South Side who was an immigrant from Syria. Acee, his wife Emmeline, 33, their three children (Julia, Thomas and Joseph), Mrs. Acee’s sister (Sahandra Herb), the sister’s daughter (Mary) and an Italian immigrant (David Sprone) died when the car was struck by the fast moving train.

Recorder history columnist Tony Pacelli saw the 1924 accident, which took place at a track crossing near Quist’s Lumber at Luther Street, “We worked on the DiCaprio’s farm during the summer months and were waiting for DiCaprio’s flatbed truck to take us home. Mr. Acee was told to wait, for the train was due at any minute. He did not comprehend.”   

Pacelli said a small dog also was in the Acee car, “Mr. Acee was on track two and had trouble shifting the car when the train struck it.  No one survived but the dog, who ran down the tracks.”

The Recorder reported the animal waited patiently but in vain for his favorite, Julia, to come home from school the day after the accident, “Through some means beyond his canine comprehension he has been bereft of a beloved playmate.”

More than 100 Syrian-Americans came for the funerals from various upstate New York cities, adding to the thousands of Amsterdam mourners. Word was passed to local restaurants to feed the Syrian guests, keep track of the charges and present the bills to relatives of the Acee family.

The wake was held at Dugan’s Hall of St. Mary’s Institute on Forbes Street after crowds overwhelmed the Perillo and Gilston undertaking parlors.

The third accident was on June 15, 1945. Eight men working on the main line tracks just east of Amsterdam were killed when struck by the Water Level Limited passenger train.  The men were from Mexico and had been hired to work on the railroad because so many American men were at war.    

According to historian Hugh Donlon, the eight Mexican workers who perished were part of a group of 65 working on track maintenance that day.  Donlon said bodies were strewn along the tracks for a quarter mile.

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.”

Smith said, “I imagined how future generations would hear the story of how these men had died so far from home.  It symbolized for me so many of our ancestors who ventured far from home never to return again–my own Swedish grandfather, to name just one… These eight men were building our rail system and lost their lives doing it.”

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