I love to ride trains. There is a feeling of romanticism that washes over me as the steel wheels roll and rumble on the rails beneath, taking you not just to a place, but to a place in time. During such a journey it’s easy to conjure up those days when our grandparents and relatives used the rails as their primary means of rapid transit. But those travels were often filled not so much with romance, as with smokey cars, hard seats, rougher rides and the potential for disaster. Rail accidents and wrecks were all too common in those days. So much so, they may have been regarded as we think of car accidents and traffic dangers – a day-to-day reality that we’ve come to accept, or at least acknowledge, as a cruel cost of modern living. And so it was, 125 years ago this week in 1887, when on the bitterly cold morning of January 4th, an eastbound freight train and a west-bound B&O passenger train met head-on on the tracks near Republic in Seneca County. Newspaper accounts said the Baltimore and Ohio passenger train, with two sleepers, a smoker car and 65 people aboard, was traveling at 60 mph when it ran head-on into the stalled freight train about 11 miles east of Tiffin near the small village of Republic. The engineer of the passenger train said by the time he saw the stalled freight on the tracks it was too late to stop. He managed to jump to safety before impact and watched in horror as the two locomotives collided, then rose in the air together, as if in a deadly dance, before crashing to the ground.
The impact was thunderous, awakening nearby farmers from their early morning slumber. At least three of the cars of the passenger train telescoped into each other, including the smoker car where at least 15 people were seated. Witnesses said a fire was sparked after the crash and there was little hope for the men women and children inside the car. Many were burned beyond recognition as the car caught fire. In all, it is said that as many as 22 people were killed, but no one knows for sure. A dispatch from a Tiffin reporter said.
” Fire broke out in the smoker car and soon spread. Many were killed outright, others wedged in between broken cars and were slowly consumed. The screams were heartrendering. No assistance could be given until a farmer awakened by the crash came with other neighbors and worked like heroes to save the perishing. As of this writing, nineteen bodies have been discovered, They lie burned and disfigured in the snow beside the tracks.”
The tragedy could have been worse, for no one in the sleeper cars was killed because, according to one news account, a quick thinking survivor was able to get out of the burning cars and uncouple the sleeper cars from the flaming wreckage and push them away from harm’s way. According to the Republic Ohio community website, some of the unidentified bodies were taken to the Republic town hall for a mass funeral, then taken to a local cemetery and put in a mass grave, buried as “unknowns”. One of the saddest tales of that night was the story of the Joseph Postlewaite family of West Virginia who had just sold their 10 acre farm to relocate to Missouri. Mr. Postlewaite had all of his assets on him, amounting to over a thousand dollars in cash and checks. He and two young sons were seated with him in the sleeper. They all perished in the blaze, and their assets were lost to the flames. His wife, meanwhile had remained in the sleeper car with three other children. While she and the three children survived, she was left a widow, with only 50 cents to her name. I have yet to discover whatever happened to the widow Postlewaite and her children.
It’s been over a century since that terrible night, but the memory of the great train disaster at Republic is kept alive by many locals who insist that on certain nights they can see a “ghost train” on the tracks that still run past the south flank of the village. A light, they claim, from a phantom train can be seen cutting its way through the darkness of the Seneca County countryside, flashing past the local Farewell Retreat Township Cemetery where many of the “unknown” victims rest to this day.