Historical Markers
Civil War Prison Train Wreck Historical Marker
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Civil War Prison Train Wreck

Poconos / Endless Mountains


Marker Location:
PA 434 at N end of Shohola

Dedication Date:
September 1, 1993

Behind the Marker

"The two locomotives were raised high in the air, face-to-face against each other, like giants grappling."

                                 - Frank Evans, Union guard who was uninjured in the wreck

In the 1800s, Americans loved their new railroads. By taking a train, riders could avoid bad weather, escape the bumpy stagecoach ride, and make some reasonable plans on when they might arrive. But the technology, and the operating culture of railroads was still relatively primitive, and preventive safety measures were virtually unknown. Before the late 1800s, most railroad managers viewed even serious accidents as a regrettable, but acceptable, cost of doing business.
1856 Crash from Leslies Illustrated Weekly depicting the collision of passenger and excursion trains near Camp Hill Station, July 17, 1856.
From Frank Leslie's Illustrated Weekly, July 26, 1856

One of the earliest passenger-train disasters in American history took place near Fort Washington, Pa., on the North Pennsylvania Railroad. On July 17, 1856, a trainload of 1,600 Sunday school picnickers from the St. Michael's Roman Catholic Church in Philadelphia smashed head-on into a local passenger train, killing sixty and injuring sixty others. The twenty-nine-year-old conductor of the local, having disregarded rules and ordered his engineer to proceed rather than wait at a siding for the delayed picnic train to pass, was so distraught that he took his life the same day.

During the Civil War, both Northern and Southern railroads hauled passengers, troops, freight, and materiel in huge quantities. More trains carried heavier loads, and did so more quickly than at any time in the very short history of the technology. With the added threat of wrecks due to enemy sabotage, wartime railroading was crowded and hazardous.

The Pennsylvania Railroad serviced a strategic corridor that extended from the iron and munitions works at Pittsburgh east to Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore, and Washington. In 1862 and again in 1863, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee dispatched saboteurs to destroy the wooden 3,680-foot-long Rockville Bridge over the Susquehanna River near Harrisburg in order to hamper the re-supply of Union troops. On neither occasion did the rebels succeed.

By the summer of 1864, while Union troops under Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman were advancing deeply into Georgia, Northern prisons were overflowing with Confederate prisoners. That July, the Union Army opened Camp Chemung, a new military prison at Elmira, N.Y. Union officers transferred large convoys of prisoners of war from other prisons to the new facility. By the end of the month, the camp held 4,424 prisoners. During August, 5,195 more arrived.
Photo of Elmira prison
Photo of Elmira prison

To move Confederate prisoners from Point Lookout, Md. to Elmira, the army first transported them by steamer up the Atlantic Coast to Jersey City, N.J. There they boarded the Erie Railroad for an all-day - or all-night - 273-mile trip that twice veered from northern New Jersey and New York into Pennsylvania along the upper Delaware and Susquehanna rivers. A first group of 399 prisoners arrived at Elmira on July 6, 1864.

Another group of unknown size followed on July 11, and a third group of 502 men arrived on the 12th. Early in the morning of July 15th, a "second section" train carrying 833 prisoners and 128 Union guards pulled out of Jersey City. (For dispatching purposes, routing a second, unscheduled train behind the first was an easy way to move an extra train over the tracks with a minimum of both paperwork and opportunity for error.) The engine of the lead train carried distinctive flags that signified to all railroaders along the way that a "second section" was following, and warned them not to use or block the tracks until that second train had safely passed.

Soon, however, the second west-bound prison train, pulled by No. 171, a thirty-three-ton American Standard 4-4-0 type built in 1854 by Seth Wilmarth of Boston, fell far behind. Delayed by a hunt for escaped rebels and then by an open drawbridge, it arrived at Port Jervis, N.Y., on the Pennsylvania border, four hours behind its lead train. Twenty-three miles ahead, a fifty-car coal train was steaming east on the same tracks. When the coal train, pulled by a thirty-eight-ton engine built in 1863 by the New Jersey Locomotive and Machine Works, arrived at Lackawaxen, Pennsylvania about 2:30 p.m., conductor John Martin checked with the depot telegrapher, Douglas Kent, to make sure that the track ahead was clear to Shohola, Pennsylvania, just four miles to the east. Kent gave him clearance, and the coal train continued on.

Steaming east at about twenty-five miles an hour, the coal train passed Shohola at 2:45 p.m. In the middle of a blind curve, in a deep rocky ravine known as King and Fuller's Cut, the two trains ran headlong into each other. The sudden impact of the collision propelled the fuel wood stacked in each engine's tender forward into the locomotive cabs, immediately killing both engineers and firemen. On the prisoner train, the impact telescoped the wooden cars into each other, killing thirty-seven men in the first car behind Engine 171. As many as fifty-one prisoners and nineteen Union guards died as a result of the crash.
Wreck on the Pennsylvania Central Railroad - 1864–Harper's Weekly
Wreck on the Pennsylvania Central Railroad - 1864–Harper's Weekly

When word reached Port Jervis, New York, the nearest railroad division town, the Erie Railroad rushed two relief trains with aid workers and doctors to the crash site. Scores of injured men were taken back to Shohola and treated at the Erie station or in a hotel. Both the Confederate and Union dead were buried on the site. A subsequent investigation found the telegrapher, who had fled the scene, to be negligent - and perhaps drunk.

The prison camp at Elmira closed one year later, soon after the Civil War ended. In 1911, the bodies of the men buried at Shohola were exhumed and removed to Elmira, where they were placed in a common grave at Woodlawn National Cemetery, marked by a monument with two bronze plaques mounted on its opposite sides. The names of the Union soldiers faced north; those of the Confederate soldiers faced south.

Only with the coming of air brakes, automatic couplers, automatic block signals, and steel-bodied, telescoping-resistant railroad cars, did travel for civilian and military passengers become truly safer. As railroads gained experience, and laws mandating safety devices came into effect, railroads became safer for both passengers and employees. After 1910, steel cars quickly replaced wooden cars. But no mechanical system is risk-free, and the worst passenger-train accident in Pennsylvania history took place on September 6, 1943, when the Pennsylvania Railroad's northbound Congressional Limited derailed at high speed at Frankford Junction in Philadelphia, killing seventy-eight passengers and a dining-car employee.
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