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A Local Event In History You Probably Didn’t Know

(Montana State University Library@Flickr)

It’s some local history that most people don’t know about. People who even live near where it happened may have heard about it, but probably don’t know the details. It was the worst railroad disaster to that point in American history and it happened just outside the Village of Angola when the last car of the Buffalo-bound Lake Shore Express derailed while crossing Big Sister Creek.

Back then there was no standard for the width of railroad tracks. Sometimes they varied by fractions of an inch and in this case it made a huge difference when that last passenger car hit a rail switch as it approached the bridge. The last car began to sway back and forth, jumped the track and finally plunged 40 feet into the ravine.

Passenger cars back then were made of wood and each one had a pot-belly stove at either end for warmth and kerosene lamps for light. Because the car came to rest at a 45-degree angle, all of the passengers were thrown to the front of the train, on top of the stove at that end and the stove at the rear of the car fell on top of them. Fueled by the kerosene in the lamps the fire burned everybody alive. 49 people died. Some were never identified and are buried at Forest Lawn.

That train wreck sparked calls for safer railroad travel. The result was the development of air brakes and automatic couplers – a quicker way to stop trains in an emergency. In 1893 they became mandatory on all trains in the United States. All tracks across the country became a standard gauge, wooden rail cars were replaced with steel and coal-burning stoves in the cars were replaced with a safer form of heating.

A successful young executive in the oil refining business was supposed to be on that train. John D. Rockefeller was headed to New York City to visit with family. He packed Christmas gifts in his luggage and sent it ahead to the Cleveland train station. The luggage made it aboard, but he was running late and missed the train. It saved his life.

The Angola Horror happened on this date, December 18, 1867.


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