John was running late, and the timing could not be worse for him. He was preparing for the biggest meeting of his life. It was a meeting with one of the most important men in the country, and the outcome would decide the fate of his fledgling business. Already on a very tight schedule, it seemed as if one thing after another was conspiring against him. Little did he know how much fate was working to spare his life and to transform an entire nation.
John’s train was scheduled to leave Cleveland’s Union Station at 6:40 a.m. The 28-year-old was customarily punctual, but this morning he was running late. Part of the problem was that he planned to see relatives while in New York. It being so close to Christmas, he took some extra time to pack some gifts for family members. His luggage was ready to go, but John still had to say goodbye to his wife and children. He sent his bags ahead of him to the train station, with plans to follow immediately behind them.
It seemed unusually hard to say goodbye to his family. He and Laura had been married for three years, but they still felt like newlyweds. Then there was their adorable one-year-old daughter, Elizabeth. Leaving her behind was almost unbearable. Reluctantly, he pulled away from their embraces so he could make the vitally-important meeting in New York City.
Now, as he hurried toward the train station, he regretted taking that extra time at home. One thing after another tacked minute after minute to his commute. Now he wished he had left the day before, on December 17. As important as his meeting was, it would not do to let things come down to the wire. He thought he planned accordingly. His train was scheduled to arrive in Buffalo at 1:30. Even if it was running late, the train to New York City wasn’t due to depart until 6 p.m. That would give him a restful night on the train, pulling into Manhattan by 7:00 on the morning of December 19. That assumed, of course, that he got on the Lake Shore Express, which was scheduled to leave his hometown any minute.
Breathlessly, John’s car finally arrived at Union Station. Just as he got out of his car, however, he heard the sickening sound of the train’s brakes being released and its whistle announcing its departure. John had never missed a train in his life — until now.
He hurried to make other plans. Much to his consternation, he learned that his luggage actually got to the station early enough that it was on the Lake Shore Express and already on its way to Buffalo. Now, in addition to arranging different travel plans to New York City, John would also have to make the overnight journey without a change of clothes. Again — and it would not be the last time — John rebuked himself for dawdling. If he had left the house just a couple of minutes sooner, he would be on that train, along with his luggage. Of course, being that late, he would have been given a seat in the rear car of the train, but at least he would be on his way.
As it turned out, John made it to New York, but his luggage never did. A little more than 8 hours after pulling out of Cleveland, the Lakeshore Express was running 2 hours and forty-five minutes behind schedule. It was 3:11 p.m. when the train approached the truss bridge over Big Sister Creek just east of Angola, New York. The rear car — the one in which John would have been riding — had a slightly-bent front axle. It was just enough to create some instability as the wheels rolled over a crossing point between two tracks. The wheels of the defective axle jumped off the track, pulling the entire rear car off the rails.
The car’s 50 passengers were thrown through the air, ricocheting off the walls, floor, ceiling, and each other. The oil lamps broke and doused the tumbling passengers with kerosene. Then, just to add an additional touch of hell to the experience, the free-standing iron stoves at each end of the car overturned, sending white-hot coals to burn the passengers and ignite the kerosene.
The conductor immediately sensed a problem and applied the brakes. The train was moving too fast to stop before getting to the bridge, however. As the front of the train crossed onto the bridge, the rear car separated from the rest of the train and plunged some 40 feet (12 meters) into the icy gorge below. There, the car burst into flames. Kerosene from the gas lamps fed the flames, which consumed the car’s plush upholstery and dry wood like kindling. “I saw the coals of fire from the stove scattered all over the car,” recalled Josiah Southwick, a farmer and justice of the peace who witnessed the disaster from his home on a rise above the creek. He ran to help but was stopped by the intense heat. “Inhaling the flames,” Southwick later said, “I was obliged to go back.”
Another rescuer had a similar experience. “The car was all in flames,” said John Martin. “I could not see them,” Martin said, “I could hear them.” The Erie Observer reported the tragedy: “The hideous, remorseless flames crackled on; the shrieks died into moans, and moans into silence more terrible, as the pall of death drew over the scene.” The screams of the dying lingered for close to five minutes, eyewitnesses said, before silence fell over the snow. Out of the 50 passengers in that car, 48 died from burns, smoke inhalation, or blunt-force trauma. Only two survived.
The second-to-last car was also pulled off the rails. Its speed kept it sliding across the bridge, but it then slid 30 feet (9 meters) down the embankment before coming to a rest. Amazingly, only one passenger of that car was killed.
That horrible accident of December 18, 1867, would go down in history as the “Angola Horror.” The Illustrated Newspaper reported the tragedy, saying, “This railroad disaster is accompanied by more horrible circumstances than ever before known in this country, and its results are truly sickening to contemplate.” The gripping accounts of the horror sparked a number of transportation safety measures in an effort to make sure such a disaster would never again happen.
As for our tardy passenger, John managed to get a seat on a later train. It wasn’t until his train passed the scene of the disaster that it dawned on him how close he had come to death. When he stopped in Angola, he got off long enough to send a message to his wife: “Thank God, I am unharmed. The six forty train I missed had a bad accident.”
Already a deeply devout man, his narrow escape only strengthened his faith. He later wrote, “I do (and did when I learned that the first train left) regard the thing, as the Providence of God.”
John was already a man of determination, but those who knew him best said that something changed after the Angola Horror. He had a renewed sense of purpose and a belief that God had spared his life for a reason.
His vitally important meeting in New York City, sure enough, was a make-or-break moment for him. The man with whom he met, Cornelius Vanderbilt, was the wealthiest and one of the most powerful men in the United States. He had agreed to meet with John to see if he could work out some sort of deal with John and his fledgling oil refinery. John made a brash proposal based on an even more daring promise. He told Vanderbilt that if he would give John a substantial discount in freight charges, John would guarantee shipping enough oil product to keep Vanderbilt’s trains full and profitable.
It was a daring proposition, but it paid off. In fact, it more than paid off. The man who narrowly missed his train and barely escaped a horrible death had decided that the rest of his days would live up to a new standard. In fact, he even renamed his business to reflect that standard. Soon the whole world would know about the Standard Oil Company and its boss, John D. Rockefeller.
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