Background | What Happened | After the Crash | The Victims | Who Was to Blame
Alliance’s deadliest train accident occurred on December 8, 1856, at the crossing. Eight people were killed and many others were severely injured, when two railroad trains collided. Newspapers across the country and the journal Scientific American shared the gruesome details of the aftermath of that fateful night.
A passenger train consisting of an engine, tinderbox, baggage car, and four passenger cars, left the Pittsburgh depot at 3:00 p.m. and arrived in Alliance at 6:38 p.m. for a supper break at the Sourbeck Hotel. The train traveled west from Pittsburgh on the Fort Wayne and Chicago Railroad. E. A. Leavitt was the conductor of the train.
The second train approached from the south on the Cleveland and Pittsburgh Railroad track. W. C. Cleland was the conductor and his engineer was William Cherry.
The crossing is where the village of Alliance got its name, since the two railroads crossed there and there was an “alliance” of the two railroads. On the northeast side of the crossing sat the Sourbeck Hotel. The building stretched alongside both railroad tracks and was a frequent stopping place for trains and their passengers.
A well-known rule of the railroads instructed all trains must come to a full and complete stop at any railroad crossing, whether there was any other train in sight or not. A flagman would get off the train and check for traffic before the conductor would cross the other tracks.
As the supper break concluded and the passengers climbed aboard the Pittsburgh train at about 7:00 p.m., conductor Leavitt began to cross the Cleveland and Pittsburgh tracks. The entire train had not crossed the intersection when the headlight of the Cleveland train was seen about a half mile away. The flagman failed to slow the speeding train, which showed no signs of slowing down and did not sound its whistle. The speed of the train was estimated from 25-35 mph.
The Cleveland train struck between the third and fourth passenger cars of the Pittsburgh train. The two cars were tossed from the tracks. The fourth car landed in the lobby of the Sourbeck and the third car crashed into the crowd of people who were standing on the platform. Strangely, none of the passengers riding in the cars were killed, but many were severely wounded. The only people killed were standing on the platform outside the hotel or near the tracks.
After the Crash
After the crash occurred, William Cherry, the engineer of the runaway train jumped off and ran away from the scene, fearing that he would be lynched for the accident. When the wreckage was cleared, it was determined that eight people had lost their lives. They were found under the train cars and some were dismembered as well as totally disfigured.
Those killed included Alliance resident Jacob Rudie, flagman for the railroad; Dr. P. B. Smith and his wife Sarah B. Smith, residents of Alliance, a newly married couple with a promising future ahead of them. John Brooks resided in New Jersey and was on his way to Limaville to be married. Nicholas G. Taylor, a resident of Philadelphia, was on a business trip to Chicago. John C. McIntyre lived in Alliance and had a wife and two young children. He is buried in the Williamsport Cemetery. He, along with Pierson Otterhalt and King Watson were carpenters. Atterholt and Ritchey resided in New Garden, Ohio.
Who Was to Blame?
Who was to blame for the slaughter? Leavitt had left the supper stop four minutes later than he should have, at just the time that the Cleveland train was to arrive. It was unclear whether Cleland’s engineer, William Cherry, had sounded his whistle or not. If he had pulled the brakes and reversed the engine as the train approached the crossing, was there a coating of frost on the tracks that prevented the train from slowing and stopping as it was required to do? If he had tried to stop the train, why did he jump off and run away? Engineer Cherry turned himself in to authorities in Cleveland several days after the incident. On January 1, 1857, he appeared before a magistrate in Alliance to tell his side of the story.
Cherry swore in his statement that he had whistled down the brakes, reversed the engine, and tried to stop his train before reaching the crossing. He noted that the wheels slid on the tracks and he was sure that the train was going no faster than twelve miles per hour. He stated that when he did see the lights of the Pittsburgh train and those on the station platform, the track was clear. He tried several times to slow the train, but it did not stop.
The judicial inquiry into the incident formed quickly with the verdict coming just nine days later. The Summit County Beacon reported the findings on December 17, 1856, as follows: “After having heard evidence extensively and examined the bodies, we do find that the deceased came to their death by violence … inflicted and caused by the passenger train on the Cleveland and Pittsburgh Railroad crossing of the Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne and Chicago Railroad at Alliance … the Jury find caused the immediate death of said persons whose bodies were found as aforesaid. And we, the jury, do further find that one John Cherry, the Engineer on the engine of said train on said Cleveland & Pittsburgh Railroad running north, was concerned in the perpetration of said outrage, violence and death, as principal.”