Slaying the Dragon
Bringing an 'Urban Legend' to its Knees
P. J. Erbley (Paul Worboys)
Did you hear the story of the Lover's Lane murderer with a hook on his amputated forearm? It was yanked off by a car door handle when his next victims heard a radio report and peeled out without realizing they were next—only to find the attached hook the following morning?
How about the ones where the wet poodle was placed in a microwave to have its fur dried, the exploding toilet, alligators in the sewer, the vanishing hitchhiker or when the Neiman-Marcus cookie recipe went out over the Internet?
Great stories all, but merely Urban Legends built on a shred of truth or just someone's creative imagination. There are websites on the subject, a phenomenon of three decades or so, inspired by folklore and plain old legends that may be centuries old.
We have our own homegrown legend in these parts, based on a true event from twelve decades ago, a peculiar piggy-back train wreck in Batavia, New York, on February 18, 1885. It, or at least the very popular picture of it, has migrated around the colonies until any upstanding Batavian should get downright ornery to think other locales have absconded with it.
Since every telling is accompanied by the same photograph, the credit has always been given to Batavia's P. B. Hausenknecht, a photographer who figured one heavy steam locomotive riding atop another just doesn't happen every day. Therefore, when you see P.B.'s shot (its copyright protection long expired), disregard versions that it happened on the Old Colony Railroad in Massachusetts or on the Erie somewhere in Pennsylvania.
What has happened closer to our realm is that two accidents (35 years and 37 miles apart) on our late, great little 'Peanut Branch' of the New York Central Railroad seemed to have glommed into one historical account. At the time, it was officially the Canandaigua to Niagara Falls branch of the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad.
During a midwinter blizzard and two miles east of Batavia, a plow train scooped up a marooned passenger train's locomotive and deposited it on the engine behind the plow—giving the opportunistic Hausenknecht a chance to make the wreck world famous—-photographically at least. In 1920, on the same Peanut line one mile west of Ionia, a plow train hit an intransigent snowdrift and got piled up quite thoroughly—though not in the piggy-back style of the former event.
Distilled by time and given to folklore in the retellings, Ionia slowly emerged as the site of the '85 smash-up. While the 'stolen' event remains close to the true account, the overlay of it on Ionia's actual 1920 wreck location seems a most appealing example of a folklorist's craft.
Additionally, this writer heard scuttlebutt floating around the hamlet's now-defunct "Peanut Line Café" ["Sweet Solutions' is there now] that suggested one of the locomotives was, to this day, buried near the site of the wreck! But that is fodder for the second part of this essay, which relates the true account and the "Urban Legend."
The Beloved Peanut
One month short of 120 years ago, a real calamity hit the Genesee County metropolis of Batavia. No, not the subject of this yarn per se, but rather a huge blizzard that roared into the Northeast states and almost totally shut down this horse, buggy and sleigh age.
Even the railroads, the most reliable way to get from town to town in such conditions, were mired in snow drifts taller than hay mows. But it was a badge of honor to railroad men to beat the elements and get their trains through, especially for the men of the "Peanut Road"—that downtrodden little "streak o' rust" that hardly had reason to exist in the first place.
A mere pawn in the game of big time railroadin', the Peanut started out as the Canandaigua & Niagara Falls Railroad in 1853, a single track, broad gauge line laid down on old Seneca Indian trails. It rolled through burgs like Miller's Corners (Ionia today), fostered the suburbanization of staid old East Bloomfield into tolerating a sister village down in the valley (Holcomb) and it cut a swath directly through the rough-and-tumble mill town of Honeoye Falls.
But the fledgling railroad industry was fast becoming a game for the high-rollers and two roads, the Erie and Corney Vanderbilt's New York Central, found the C&NF an appealing pawn. Paradoxically, the broad gauge Erie wanted to buy and double-track it to compete with the Central's mainline route across the state (Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo), while Vanderbilt just wanted to block his rival's plan. (Does George Steinbrenner come to mind here?)
Vanderbilt won the bidding war in 1858, immediately converted the line to the standard gauge width and went on to generally treat our only link to the outside world like a wad of gum on the sole of his imported alligator shoe! To keep the Erie at bay, the coveted right-of-way charter was his and, legally, he had to keep his trains on it—-just to keep Erie trains off of it.
The scheme must have worked, since the ever-demeaned Peanut survived intact until the Holcomb-Caledonia segment via Honeoye Falls was abandoned in January, 1939. Even today, a bit of it still exists.
As you know, nicknames are hard to shake. 'Shoeless' Joe Jackson played part of a single game without baseball cleats-poor guy, dead over 50 years and still 'Shoeless'! Due to its lack of stature, the old Canandaigua and Niagara Falls was soon and forevermore tagged the "Peanut Line," the "Peanut Road" or simply the "Peanut." Of course you technical fuddy-duddies might wish to add that Batavia cut the line in two, so railroad men and travelers alike referenced the "East Peanut" or the "West Peanut," depending on which direction the train was heading out of that town.
How the goober moniker came to life is fodder for another story, but, simply know that it had zip, zero, nada to do with peanuts!
The Unvarnished Truth
On the afternoon of February 17, 1885, and at the height of the aforementioned storm, Peanut crews damned the conditions and attempted their passenger runs between Batavia and Canandaigua. After all, wasn't this the line that withstood the Great Flood of 1865 and, as a result, almost witnessed Lincoln's funeral train? (Another story, to be sure.)
Conductor McCarthy, whose eastbound train battled heavy drifts all the way to LeRoy, was surprised to find the westbound of Conductor Campbell waiting for him beside the depot. Normally, the 'meet' would have been back at Caledonia, but the going was easier going nose-to-nose with the blizzard—that is until Campbell's engineer of locomotive #295, William "Boss" Walling, sensed harsher conditions ahead and decreed his train would not attempt Batavia that day.
Once McCarthy's train plowed into LeRoy, pulled by engines #296 and #336, with Samuel Perkins and Ed Wood at the throttles, the crews agreed it would take a herculean effort to bust through to Batavia. So they hatched a plan where the eastbound would fulfill its obligation to reach Canandaigua, then return to LeRoy to assist Walling's train.
All went swimmingly and the two consists were tied together into a juggernaut of three locomotives and two baggage cars. Not quite certain of their fate, the railroad boys poured on the coal and rolled into the billowing white blizzard toward Stafford and Batavia, leaving their passengers to find hospitality in the warm homes of LeRoy.
Mountains of snow were pushed aside as the train plunged westward. But fortunes waned as they came within earshot of their goal. First it was a 'thump'—bigger and more certain than the rest. Then it was a loss of momentum—crucial in a battle such as this. And finally it was a blatant 'clunk'—received as the train reversed order in preparation to rush the snow pack, only to have a set of trucks leave the rails. That was it, marooned at the Batavia-Stafford town line—or so someone thought.
A messenger, apparently chosen from the crew for his brawn only, was sent into Batavia in search of a rescue. Perhaps a more cerebral type was needed, as the man directed the crew of the rescue train to go to the township boundary two miles outside the city. Unfortunately, his calibrations were skewed, as the train lay snowbound at the city limits—not the town boundary.
So, picture a massive twenty-ton snowplow, pushed through blowing snow by two monster steam locomotives at a 40 mile-per-hour clip, with visibility of a few yards, going to a point fully one mile closer than originally surmised. Do the math—it ain't pretty.
The crew of the stranded train cooled their heels on a snowbank and assumed their rescuers would toot out a warning in slow approach to the scene. Little did they know, engineers George Acker and Henry Van Dolan had their plow train blasting full throttle for them.
(Remember the popular caption under illustrations within every office cubicle in America? Dripping the connotation of resigned relief, it blurted, "Thank goodness, it's Friday!" Out in the raging storm of 1885, a botched reunion was held just east of Batavia—and it wasn't even Friday.)
The resultant 'cornfield meet,' as early railroaders used to call 'em, created the scene you observe here—and made for a happy ka-ching in the coffers of one P. B. Hausenknecht, Photographer. Once the obligatory thunderclap from the collision wafted over the countryside and people came a-runnin', how many doubted their eyes as the scene came into view. It is a wonder that the only injuries were sustained by flying debris.
Train wrecks are usually accompanied by engines, tenders and cars strewn for hundreds of feet in all directions, then eventually cleaned up and generally forgotten. This event was unique. While virtually no piece of rolling stock left the rails laterally, Walling's engine #295 was scooped up and pitched over the snowplow onto Acker's trailing #470, Perkins' #296 was caught climbing the face of the plow, with Wood's #336 commencing the same antic.
Engineer Acker was ever-diligent for trouble and a good thing too. for he'd a been a goner otherwise. Spotting the snowbound train fast looming up out of the sea of white, Acker hit the brakes, yanked the whistle cord and shouted a lung-full of "JUMP!!" to his fireman. Those back in Van Dolan's #362 took the hint and followed suit. They "joined the birds" just before impact and, rolling in the snow, they missed #295's flight and subsequent crash-landing that completely squashed Acker's cab. Upon viewing the result, little did anyone know this slice of rural America would be immortalized in picture and print for decades to come.
In an era when many railroad viaducts were still of the covered type shown on Honeoye Falls postcards (replaced in 1893 with a steel plate girder bridge), the wrecking crews found the location to their liking. The piggy-backed #470, which never left the rails, was simply pulled into Batavia with intact #295 riding along pretty-as-you-please—albeit with a rearranged face.
For several days, and while a removal plan was created, the conjoined locomotives sat on a switch near Swan Street and served as a tourist attraction. As there were still bridge obstacles west of Batavia, there was no going to Buffalo, where a heavy wrecking crane could do the work. It was decided instead to dig a pit (keep this concept in mind when the Ionia crash is described), pull the mess into said pit until #295 was at ground level and #470 was 'buried' below, then place rails to #295 and pull it to freedom.
Once removed from its back, #470 was drawn from its hole and the two were sent to the repair shops and subsequently returned to service.
If not for it being the dead of winter, some two-bit capitalist might have set up a booth and charged admission to witness the whole gritty industrial pageant. At least the memory lingered for a long, long time. Photographer Hausenknecht saw to that!
For years thereafter, the piggy-back wreck was the exclusive domain of Batavia, NY (which loved the notoriety) and the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad (which, of course, hated such fame).
Periodically, the Hausenknecht print, with all due credit and description, would be found in a newspaper or magazine. Around the 50th anniversary, various companies used it in calendars and Ripley's Believe-It-Or-Not even added to the exposure.
Even the city of Batavia got involved by producing a screen-printed shirt of a drawing of the piggy-back wreck. Thanks to a request in the 'Who-Knows' column in the Pennysaver and a response from an elderly railroad man from Batavia, this writer has his own Bicentennial commemoration of that famous day. (If he were anywhere near his playing weight, he'd show it off around town. But in the here-and-now? Forget it.)
Then it started to get ugly. Sinister forces went to work, as time blurred memory and detail—followed by the demise of the principals of the story. Combined with actual, but very rare piggy-back train wrecks, the Hausenknecht picture endured, as local writers fudged the details and made Engineer Acker's poor old #470 the universal victim.
For instance, a national magazine related a similar event on the Old Colony Railroad, near Marlboro Junction, Massachusetts. Entitled "A Freak Wreck," the pick-a-back actually happened, but the photo was pirated and #470 was the foil once again. Apparently, in lieu of an authentic photo of that collision, the author 'adjusted' the details to fit the Batavia portrait.
A noted local historian and folklorist wrote a wonderful story about the Batavia occurrence. "An Unexpected Scoop," gave a mostly accurate presentation of the details and the characters involved—except for the pileup getting transferred 37 miles to the east. A few months later, this author's story was adapted by a regional magazine, "Stranded by a Genesee Country Winter," with at least one major adjustment in the story line.
Rather than having the locomotive pairing towed to Batavia, someone realized the presence of covered bridges along the Peanut prevented such a maneuver. The editorial switcheroo read in part, "They could not be towed to the Batavia railroad yard because they would not fit under bridges. Workers finally dragged the whole mess into a sand pit...when the ground thawed, teams of horses dug a huge hole and buried the bottom engine [#470] until Walling's engine #295 was level with the ground. Then, they dragged it off the top with teams of horses and mules."
What was created among our local populace, was a classic Urban Legend, where the elements of truth were diluted in a dose of fiction and good storytelling. The key change was in the location, which exited Batavia and found a home in the woods outside Ionia.
Additionally, like hidden treasure, a steam engine sits buried in a sand pit near the long-abandoned right-of-way? People have looked for it, metal detectors have detected it, but no one has proven that it is there. It is a dubious assertion, to be sure.
The Wreck of 1920
Ionia certainly had its share of railroad history, as the New York Central's Peanut was the life-blood of the hops, produce and field crop industries. Wagons brimming with beer hops streamed out of the Bristol Hills and local farmers hauled many a harvest through town to be sent by rail to far-off markets. Heck, "Asparagus Junction," a crafts shop in the old Ionia depot, wasn't named out of thin air—there was the region's agrarian heritage to honor.
In 1920, for instance, the year commenced with one blanket of snow piled atop another. By February, lingering piles of cleared and drifted snow left the roads and rails but mere channels for passing travelers. There was little room for error, especially when it came to the railroads.
On Tuesday afternoon, February 10th, Honeoye Falls' country doctor, H.R. Marlatte, and his driver had just begun their return trip from an Ionia house call. Reaching the hamlet's four corners crossing, where the Peanut followed a diagonal route through the intersection, wind-driven snow obscured the doctor's cutter from the sight and sound of the westbound 4:35 passenger train.
Before they knew it, the locomotive leveled a glancing blow to the conveyance, killed and carried off the horse and sent the riders flying into a convenient snowdrift. Badly shaken, but otherwise intact, the bruised men arrived home to contemplate their good fortune as the buzz around Ionia spread from household to household.
Just one week and many inches of snow later, a greater hubbub swept through the area and by Saturday, February 14th, after Marlatte's set-to, recurring storms served to block Peanut rail traffic. The Central brass decided to 'get rough' with nature's antics and, on Tuesday the 17th, a hefty plow train, under the guidance of engineer Samuel Gersley and comprised of a one-sider plow, two locomotives, two cabooses and a flanger car, headed west out of Canandaigua
On it came, through Wheeler's Station, Holcomb and Ionia, blasting snowdrifts with aplomb. The crew of five must have thought such a run was mere child's play and the route to Batavia would be open in short order. That is until, a mile beyond Ionia, a meek-looking drift turned out to be solid ice.
The train left the rails, jack-knifed until its units were akimbo and the five-man crew painfully injured. One engine was on its side and facing the direction from which it came and the other was in a tipsy pose well off the rails. The plow, which was ill-suited to a single track line, was found more or less destroyed, with its thoroughly crumpled nose lifted to the North Star.
Fortunately, a passenger train, following an hour behind, came upon the scene, received the injured and hurriedly backtracked to Canandaigua's hospital. A wreck train was ordered to the site of the mishap and strong-backed farmers were hired to chop and dig out the line.
Wrecking cranes, equipment and crews of 1920 were far more capable of clearing a crash site than in 1885, when a buried and abandoned locomotive was only slightly more plausible. For arguments sake, even if a piggy-back situation existed, no railroad would leave one of its 'own' behind—the collective ego would not allow it.
Photographs of other piggy-back train wrecks.
At a time when NYC bigwigs may have already been considering the Peanut's scrap value, there was little doubt any wrecks would be summarily cleaned up. By 1925, crystal ball showed that automobiles and trucks were winning America. Economical two-unit, gasoline-powered 'doodlebugs' carried a few loyal passengers and there was so little freight that, by 1939, Ionia's tracks disappeared from the landscape altogether.
Here, in the new millennium, there are people out Ionia way who will tell you the standard mantra of the story. It all sounds very convincing, especially when told by one fellow, "I know where it happened, my metal detector registered 'Big Iron' and it has a forty-foot outline." Hmmmm.
Hopefully this spring we will keep a date to do a little digging out in the hinterlands of West Bloomfield town. One of us will be made a fool, have egg on our grizzled mug or break out in hives. The dragon will be dealt with one way or the other.
But what if it's not found, does that mean it's not out there somewhere? This writer tells people of a pithy headline from a 1913 newspaper, "Shortsville Man Leaves Toes in Canandaigua." No one believes me, until they see the clipping about the careless fellow's failed attempt to board a moving freight train.
A legend, once hatched and incubated over a generation or more, will never cease its work. Even tonight, some couple out on Lover's Lane will sense a hook moving stealthily toward their car door. Personally (ahh, the smell of homemade Neiman-Marcus cookies baking in the oven), the hook murderer and buried locomotive tales, are, until proven otherwise, balderdash!
Illustrations provided by the author.
© 2006, Paul Worboys