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Society President's Perspective on
the Nile Wreck—105 Years Later

[Webmaster's note: This column appeared in the November 2017 issue of the society's newsletter magazine, the Cannonball.]
By Ken J. Clark, PS&NRRHS President

n October 2nd, I received an email through our main website from a Don Felice.  Don pointed out that it was 105 years ago that the ill-fated Nile (NY) wreck occurred.  He had some interesting observations as well as questions concerning the wreck.

Readers will want to refer to this issue's cover photo (see below).  It was forwarded to us by member Bill Burt after he located the original at the Cuba Historical Society.  In the foreground are the remains of passenger Engine No. 11.  Engine No. 73 is leading up the work train to restore service to the line.  Behind the 73 is caboose No. 152.  This was a unique eight-wheel, three-window, side door caboose.  The Shawmut only owned two cabooses like this; the other being No. 150 which was assigned to the Clarion River RR.  The companion photo to this one was previously published on page 14 of the September 2016 issue of the Cannonball.

Above—Aftermath and cleanup of the Nile, NY wreck which occurred on Sunday, September 22, 1912.  This previously unpublished photo was discovered by member Bill Burt at the Cuba, NY Historical Society.  (Cuba Historical Society photo).

The wreck has been described in some detail in various places: Paul Pietrak's book, back issues of the Cannonball, plus our own website.  I don't want to consume column inches retelling the story again, but before I get into Don's letter, I think that I should provide a brief summary of the events leading up to the wreck for the benefit of those who may not be aware.

The passenger train involved in the wreck was a special Sunday excursion train from Olean to Stony Brook Glen, and return.  These special Sunday and Holiday-only trains were so popular that the PS&N had been operating them as regularly scheduled trains Nos. 9 & 10.  As numbered trains, listed in the timetable, they had authority over the line without the need for train orders and all other trains (i.e., “extras” not listed in the timetable) were required to clear the main for them.  However, just 21 days prior to the wreck, that is on Sept. 1st, these trains were annulled from the timetable.  As such, they were operated as “passenger extras” from that time on.  Keep this fact in mind.  We'll be coming back to it.

The wreck occurred in the evening on the return trip to Olean.  Records show that the return train left Hornell, its layover point, at 6PM.  Normal running time would have put the train in Belvidere by, say, 7:45PM.  This is an estimate because we don't know what were the train handling procedures at Stony Brook and whether the train was turned at the wye in Perkinsville, or Moraine.

I mention Belvidere at this point in the story, because on that evening, the train operating up to this point was a stand-in for the train that had started out in the morning in Olean.  It seems that earlier that day, a coal train had derailed in Ceres and prevented the special excursion from continuing north.  A substitute was quickly dispatched from Angelica to a point just north of the derailed train, and the excursionists were walked past the derailment and onto the substitute.  After the line was cleared, the now-empty excursion train proceeded north, was turned, and waited out the day at Belvidere for the substitute to return.  This meet and subsequent transfer of passengers back onto the original train further delayed the special.  The special probably departed Belvidere at 7:55PM.

Now we need to get into the head of the dispatcher that evening. As I said above, the passenger excursion had been annulled from the timetable and was operating this day as a passenger extra. With no timetable authority, the return train was operating over the line by train or-der from the dispatcher. This would have taken the or-der of a Form 19 and would have read something like:


At this same time, there was a coal train heading north. The dispatcher had three choices for a meet: Bolivar, West Notch and Friendship. Based on the choice made by the dispatcher that evening, the coal train must have been expected to pass Bolivar by 7PM. You may remember in a prior issue of the Cannonball, that the receiver had a concern for coal cars being interchanged at Wayland past midnight.  This would cause a full extra day of per diem charges to be assessed to the Shawmut, so there was an incentive to get that coal train north in time.

The dispatcher chose Friendship for the meet.  The coal train would be dropping down the Nile hill around 8PM and since the excursion special would be dropping passengers off at Friendship anyway, very little delay would be incurred by either train.

Therefor two additional orders were issued:




These orders would have been wired to Bolivar and Friendship, respectively, as soon as the dispatcher had made that decision, perhaps by 6PM.

The station agents would have set their train order signals to “yellow” (indicating a Form 19) and would have handed up the orders “on the fly,” one copy for the engineer, one copy for the conductor.  Friendship was only 10 minutes from Belvidere and giving five minutes to unload passengers, the excursion left the Friendship depot, train order in hand, at about 8:10PM.

A half mile south (compass west) of the Friendship depot was the north end of the passing siding.  It was a half-mile long siding and the excursion should have pulled down to the south end and waited for the coal train to pass.  In such cases, it was customary for whichever crew arriving first at a “meet,” would climb down and throw the switch for the opposing train, thus allowing the other train to enter the siding without delay.

Unfortunately, this did not occur.  The engineer continued past the end of the siding and headed south.  Alarmed, the conductor climbed over the tender and into the cab to confer with the engineer.  Why had they not stopped for the meet?

The tragedy was that while traveling the length of the siding, the excursion passed a light helper engine, No. 69, which was in the siding.  No. 69's headlight had not been dimmed and in the darkness, a blinding bright headlight was mistaken for the coal train.  The engineer assured the conductor that they had indeed met No. 68 in the siding and all was well.

The Olean Evening Times reported the next day that an unidentified farmer who lived in Nile, “[H]ad gone out to water his horses and stood on the highway above the track and nearly opposite the wreck when the trains came together.  The man said he heard the trains approaching from opposite directions on the single track and realized several minutes before the collision that an accident would be unavoidable.  He stood rooted to the spot waiting for the inevitable crash, powerless to signal to the trains on account of the darkness and knowing that undoubtedly someone would be killed.  The man had no lantern or light of any kind and the evening was so cloudy that he could not have been seen by the engineer of either train in time to avoid the catastrophe.”  He was the only eye witness to the wreck outside of those on the two trains.

The collision occurred at MP 48 on a 51°2' curve.  As has been described in the other accounts, this curve meant that neither train saw the other until they were right on top of each other.  The northbound coal train was limited to 25MPH coming down the grade.  Reports indicate the southbound excursion had reach 40MPH at the point of the impact.

Well that was a not-so-brief description of the events leading up to the wreck.  And now to Don's email:

“Dear Ken: The Nile Wreck happened on Sunday, Sept. 22, 1912 (nearly the date of the annual Autumnal Equinox).  For reference, Autumnal Equinox in New York City (NYC) in 1912 was at 5:08AM EST on Sept. 23rd.  There was no listing for Buffalo or Rochester, only for NYC.  In 2017, the Autumnal Equinox for NYC/Rochester/Buffalo is 4:01PM EDT on Sept. 22nd.

“Now as we ponder in 2017, it was 105 years ago that the ‘Nile Wreck’ occurred.  Wondering if there is an exacting (or close to exacting) time, or time line, for that evening.  Most importantly would be the time of the head-to-head collision that is known as the Nile Wreck.  Knowing this info can be telling in observation and consideration of assessing similar conditions of present day as were the case when the Nile Wreck occurred.  I've still not discerned an exacting location, GPS lat/long coordinates or other reference points, for the Nile Wreck, so if you have one please share.

“According to Wikipedia, in 1912 Daylight Saving Time was not yet observed in the USA, and it would be a number of years hence that such came to be first observed.  And even after DST first came to be observed in the USA, I have read account that there may have been hiatus years from observance, and of course in years that would follow there were alterations extensions in the weeks that are holstered into DST.

“Standardized Time Zones being in existence in 1912, we can make some comparisons and extrapolation in sunset time (see below).  This lends perspective toward our present-day cognizance of what may have been parallel conditions surrounding the time-line for events that occurred on Sept. 22, 1912 as lead into the Nile Wreck.  Certainly, in reading the account of the Nile Wreck that is posted on the website of PSNRRHS.org, one can discern that the Nile Wreck had cause in a number of unfortunate circumstances all coming together in combination.  ‘The Perfect Storm’, as it might be referred to, in conditions and circumstance.  Alter any one of those circumstances or factors and likely the Nile Wreck would never have been.

“Since in the USA, in present year 2017, Sept. 22nd date holds that we observe DST and in 1912 on the same date DST was not observed (EST was observed) that means there is a one-hour difference we need to factor in when looking at the conditions of daylight and sunset time relative to timing of the events.  So as we observe the sunset time of 7:12PM DST on 9/22/2017 in Buffalo in 2017, the equivalent time in 1912 for sunset would have been approximately 6:12PM EST.

“At some year in the future, I can see potential for recognition (perhaps even a memorial recognition) of the Nile Wreck, somewhere near Nile.  My interest from a historical perspective and community awareness could lead to a recognition event of some type on, or nearly on, September 22nd of a given year.  I am a hiker, and hike with more than one organized group that has a number of members who have interest in history, and I know two or more hikers in one of those hiking groups who have particular interest in the PS&N RR.

Above—A Google Earth image of the location today.  Remarkably the farm house and the farm crossing mentioned in the Olean Evening Times appears to still exist today.  Wreck location noted on map.  (Image courtesy Google).

“With land owner permission for access to the former PS&N RR right-of-way in the area where the Nile Wreck occurred, I could envision a memorial and educational awareness event and hike, all part and parcel of recognition of the Nile Wreck & the PS&N RR.

“Thanks, Don”

As you can see by my lead-in, I’ve described the timeline and approximate times for the wreck.  As to Don’s question about the location of the wreck, the coordinates are 42.186913, -78.148269 (see the Google Earth map at right).  One of the things that amazed me was that the farm house and the farm crossing to the field above the wreck site still exist in 2017.  Although the farmer was never identified in the article, PS&N valuation maps list it as being owned by Percy L. Clark (no relation).  The valuation maps also show Van Campen Creek as meandering near the right-of-way as shown in the photo above, whereas it appears that the creek has been straightened out or rechanneled over the years.

As Don pointed out, this was a “perfect storm” errors.  First off, the change from a scheduled to an extra excursion meant that the excursion no longer carried any authority on the line.  If it had still been running as No. 10 even if it was late, an order could be issued as:


This would still have meant that the coal train needed to clear in time for the excursion.  This may have happened at West Notch.  Dispatcher are averse to issuing order such as:


The Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) issued a report stating that a Form 31 train order (as opposed to a Form 19) should have been issued.  This would have required both trains to stop and sign for the orders.  Had the train crew of the excursion entered the Friendship depot and talked with the station agent (Warner Brundage at the time), the very banter between the men may have included Warner mentioning the fact that No. 69 was in the siding.

The crew of No. 69 contributed as well.  Trains or light engines sitting in sidings would normally dim their headlights.  Helpers were a routine part of life on the Shawmut and their presence on the hill between Bolivar and Friendship was routine.

Above—This view is looking north at the scene of the Nile wreck a few days after it had occurred.  In the left foreground is the Vanderbilt tender on Engine No. 68.  The man at left wearing the bowler hat and dark coat is standing on the cab of the 68.  The other two men are standing on the boiler and air reservoir, respectively.  The man on the ground appears to be inspecting the steam cylinder.  Note that the man in the far background standing in the middle of the tracks has a camera on a tripod.  Across the tracks to the right is where the remains of Engine No. 11 rested, as seen in the photo above.  In the background appears to be the house of the farmer who eye-witnessed the wreck.  (PS&NRRHS archives).
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