In 1902, Fourth of July revelers met disaster on railroad tracks
GLOVERSVILLE The forest has encroached on what is now a jeep-track service road for the Gloversville Water Department, but photos of the fatal 1902 crash on the hairpin turn halfway up Bleecker Mountain leave no doubt where the railway car lay in the ditch.
Given what happened there that Fourth of July, the serenity of the scene more than a century later evokes an eerie feeling at the spot where the two Mountain Lake Electric Railroad cars left the track, killing 14 and injuring 60.
The rails were removed in 1918, but the railbed appears completely intact as it winds its way up the mountain to the site of the former Mountain Lake Park resort, where holiday revelers viewed the fireworks that evening before boarding the cars about 10 p.m.
The crash has been immortalized in railroad lore and written about almost every anniversary. Fulton County Historian Peter Betz has written about it himself and keeps a thick file that includes a front-page account in The Gloversville Daily Leader. The headline declares: “Dying Motorman Makes Statement.” A subheadline reads: “Survivors Tell Thrilling Stories of their Experiences.”
As much as Betz knows about how novice motorman William Dodge violated procedure by starting Car 5 down the hill only 500 feet behind Car 1, he defers on the subject to Gloversville native and author Paul Larner, whose second volume on the history of the FJ&G Railroad will include a chapter on the crash. It was the accident and the subsequent wave of lawsuits that bankrupted the Mountain Lake Railroad and led to its sale in 1904 to the FJ&G, which operated it until 1917 through its subsidiary, the Adirondack Lakes Traction Co.
The Mountain Lake tracks began at North Main and State streets, allowing riders to disembark there from an FJ&G trolley and catch the ride to Mountain Lake. FJ&G later joined the lines, Larner said.
Larner, who has copies of the state and local records from that period, said the resort at Mountain Lake as well as the railbed were sold in 1903 to Gloversville attorney Jeremiah Wood for what was described as “a nominal sum.” Wood did not buy the rails or any of the cars and railroad equipment, said Larner, who recently retired from a railroad career that began in his youth with the FJ&G and concluded with Amtrak.
Larner said his second volume, like his first, “Our Railroad,” will be more of a community history than a book for train buffs. As in “Our Railroad,” which traces the FJ&G through 1894, Larner said the story of the Mountain Lake Electric Railroad involves many local people whose descendants remain in Fulton County.
Going through the records, Larner said, “you start picking up the family names and who did what and when.”
Those family connections surfaced immediately as he spoke of the group of investors who put up $60,000 in 1895 to start the venture that would include the railroad and resort. Another $20,000, assigned to a separate corporation, was raised to buy the land at the lake and build a three-story hotel, dance pavilion, shooting gallery and other facilities.
Among those investors was James Washburn, great-grandfather of William, John and Elmer Washburn. James Washburn may not have boasted of his investment in the line, but it was passed down through the family that he was in the car due next to descend.
James Washburn’s son was William Louis “Lou” Washburn, who founded Washburn’s Dairy and ice cream company. Two of his grandsons continue to run the North Main Street business.
John Washburn, a Wells Fargo stockbroker, said he was only vaguely aware of his great-grandfather’s activities involving the railroad. However, he said, there is a letter in which a Massachusetts man inquires of James Washburn, “How’s our investment going up there?”
Just a couple of blocks from the dairy is the law office of Wood & Seward where Jeremiah Wood’s great-grandson, Jeremiah “Jay” Wood IV, keeps up the practice passed down in the family.
Jay Wood said he knows his forebear was a big land speculator but he said he was unaware of the connection to the railroad and resort. However, he said, it does explain the roll of Mountain Lake railroad tickets he discovered in the family possessions.
“I wondered what that was,” Wood said. It is also clear, Wood said, concurring with Larner about the local connections, “people don’t get far around here.”
Larner has the accident records kept by the state Railroad Commission. The agency did a detailed study of the cars and tracks, calculating degrees of curves and grades, which at the hairpin exceeded 11 percent.
It is evident, Larner said, that Dodge “was going too fast.” There was testimony that the Mountain Lake Railroad failed to equip its cars with the most modern magnetic brake systems.
“They were lax, they were poor,” Larner said of the railroad company, which had actually made a profit in 1901, its first year in business.
Dodge and the motorman in Car 1, the veteran Arthur Perkins, pulled on levers that applied the brakes to the steel wheels. Car 5, a closed car carrying about 55 passengers, also had a reputation for being hard to brake, according to the accident investigators.
The motormen, said Larner, “pulled the lever and held on as hard as they could.” But, he said, with that system on a wet, rainy night, traveling too fast, “there’s no stopping; you’ve got to understand the physics.”
An 11 percent grade on a hairpin turn, Larner said, “is one hell of a grade.”
As the two cars approached the curve above the hairpin where they left the tracks, Car 5 crashed into the rear of open sided Car 1 with its 75 passengers, sending both out of control.
As Dodge explained before dying two days later, “The brakes would not work and I could not control the car.”
Larner said Dodge tried to regain control by putting it in reverse, but that action blew the circuit breaker, extinguishing the lights in both cars.
Though accounts of the day estimate the cars traveling at up to 70 mph as they approached the hairpin, Larner said that is improbable although it may have seemed that way in the darkness.
When Car 1 left the rails and flopped on its side, passengers were thrown beneath it. Those who could or dared to, jumped from the cars before the crash.
Newspaper stories credit 17-year-old William Berghoff with running back up the tracks to stop the next car. The members of the Vaudeville company performing that night, Patten and Perry, joined in the rescue effort.
Electricity was restored an hour later, allowing a rescue car carrying medical personnel from Nathan Littauer Hospital to reach the scene.
The Daily Leader, describing the accident scene, said, “The mental torture was something terrible, and to those who were penned up in the charnel place, with the dead underneath them and the wounded among them, with no lights to show them the awful state of affairs, and the shrieks and groans of the injured and the ominous silence of the people under the car and in the creek, it is something which no lifetime will ever make them forget.”
On an inside page is the advertisement for the Mountain Lake Park program for the first week in July.
The man who organized the Mountain Lake Railroad, silk salesman Samuel Elmer, died before the disaster. “The way I see it,” Larner said, “it was fortunate Elmer died before he saw this wreck destroy his railroad.”
If the wreck did not destroy it, Betz said, the lightning strike that burned down the Mountain Lake Hotel in 1908 sent the resort into an irreversible slide.
Larner’s first volume is available at Mysteries on Main Street in Johnstown, or from the Web site FJGRR.org.