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The cupola view

If, in early September 2013, one were to search for the term “July 6 Quebec train wreck” in Google Images, one would pull up more than 300 photographs of twisted metal, carnage and remnants of fire from the train derailment and explosion in Lac-Mégantic in which 47 people lost their lives.

And that’s just the first screen load. At the bottom of those 300 images Google helpfully says, “Show more results.”

In 1867, photography was still in its infancy. Which is why, in no small part, you have probably never heard of the Angola Horror, a post-Civil War train wreck on the late Buffalo and Erie Railroad in which 50 lost their lives. With no photography — and only limited illustrations — to preserve the frightfulness of the last two cars of the Dec. 16, 1867, New York Express derailing and falling off a bridge just outside of the village of Angola, N.Y., one of the first (and worst) train wrecks of modern rail history has, heretofore, been lost to the ages.

‘The Angola Horror,’ By Charity Vogel.

Enter newspaper reporter, journalism instructor and historian Charity Vogel, who became fascinated with what the public prints in the 1860s called “The Angola Horror” (which ultimately became the title of her book). Vogel ended up spending more than six years on a quest to root out the contemporary writings about that upstate New York wreck — both published and unpublished — speaking to hundreds of librarians, historians and everyday people who had the preserved letters of relatives on the ill-fated train.

Vogel has woven a strong story out of her research into the hours leading up to the Anglo wreck and the days, weeks and months following it. At times, a bit tedious; at times, a bit stark, but a strong story nonetheless.

Key to her findings (which concur with those of the coroner’s inquest) is an important piece of railroad history: while today we take for granted that “standard gauge” is four-feet, 8½ inches (56½ inches or 1435mm), in the years leading up to the Civil War and for a decade thereafter, such a sweeping statement could not be made.

Some railroads did choose the British standard of 56½-inches, but others chose gauges anywhere from five feet to six feet (or perhaps more or perhaps less). In the 1840s and 1850s, a “Gauge War” raged in the Lake Erie region, where — according to Vogel and her research — the 183-mile trip from Buffalo to Cleveland required changing trains three times because of the differences in gauges.

As railroad companies began to see the folly of this particular practice, they began to standardize, but in 1867 there were still some outliers, including the Cleveland & Toledo Railroad, which had rails and equipment set for 55¾-inches. The New York Express of that December day, though operated by the Buffalo and Erie, included “interchange” passenger cars from the Cleveland & Toledo, one of which was the penultimate car on the ill-fated train.

Using 55¾-inch equipment on the 56½-inch railway was called a “compromise.”

And it was this compromise — coupled with a bent axle, icy rails, and (perhaps) a late train exceeding speed and (maybe) an improperly installed frog and points — that caused the last two passenger cars of the Dec. 16 New York Express to go over the side of the Angola bridge onto the frozen-solid Big Sister Creek, where hot coals from the pot-belly stoves used to heat the cars torched the wood-framed vehicles, burning those alive who weren’t killed by careening off a 50-foot bridge at 25mph.

In addition to the railroad minutiae that Vogel provides, she also gives insight into the workings of the 1860s popular press, so much different from today. For example, she cites the seven daily newspapers of Buffalo (which today barely supports a single title) and the limited use of photography in publications (newspapers didn’t start to use photography until the 1870s-1880s) and the reliance on sketch artists.

Vogel also provides special cameo appearances from John D. Rockefeller Sr., an up-and-coming young businessman from Cleveland who was on his way to New York City (by way of Buffalo) that December day, and George Westinghouse Jr., whose work on the automatic railcar air brake, she postulates, certainly must have been influenced by the Angola wreck, which occurred only 170 miles to the east of his hometown.

The author provides extensive details in her work — though a reporter at the Buffalo News by trade, she has included full footnotes and cited bibliography — and, perhaps in describing the scenes of destruction and loss of life in the minutes and hours following the wreck, possibly too many details.

But, if one is not too squeamish and one has an interest in railroad history, “The Angola Horror” is a fine read.

“The Angola Horror,” by Charity Vogel. Cornell University Press, 2013, 296 pages, with index. $26.95.