Edward Gregorka is pictured in this April 20, 1940, photograph of the Lake Shore Limited crash site. PHOTO COURTESY/LITTLE FALLS HISTORICAL SOCIETY
The 1940 Gulf Curve Wreck and how Little Falls responded
By Scott Kinville
Special to The Telegram and Times
Posted May. 3, 2015 at 10:37 AM
LITTLE FALLS — Friday, April 19, 1940, saw the Benton Hall Academy holding a dance for the high school students of Little Falls. A night filled with fun and dancing was winding down when suddenly at 11:33 p.m. the mood went from joyous to shock and horror. Less than a quarter of a mile down the street from the school was the Gulf Curve, which was the sharpest curve in the New York Central Railroad System. What happened that night on those tracks would forever be etched in the minds of all of those who witnessed it. What must have sounded like a bomb going off attracted many of the students and faculty at the school down to the Gulf Curve.
Others heard the explosion as well. Gordon Brown, who operated a garage near the site of the wreck, was driving down Gulf Bridge Hill (Gorge View Highway) and Edward Guiney was on the back porch of his home on Petrie Street when they heard the blast. Like Brown, Guiney also saw a huge ball of blue flames shoot toward the sky. Guiney and his brother Melvin joined Brown and a passing motorist named John Urbis at the Gulf Curve to investigate what had just happened.
What happened was passenger train No. 19 of the New York Central, “The Lake Shore Limited,” had jumped the four-track mainline with disastrous consequences. Engine No. 5315, a Hudson J-Class 4-6-4 locomotive pulling the train, had slammed into a retaining wall made of rock. Most of the cars behind the engine would suffer horrific damage as well.
As the screams of the injured and the dying filled the cold, damp, dark night, the Little Falls Police and Fire departments were summoned. When they arrived, they knew they had their work cut out for them. They set up what portable lighting they had, rescued who they could and calls for additional help went throughout the Mohawk Valley and to Utica.
In a short period of time, dozens of doctors, nurses, ambulances, clergy, undertakers, firemen and policemen, as well as hundreds of volunteers, descended on the Gulf Curve to begin the mammoth rescue, recovery and clean up task.
Ladders were propped over the same rock wall that the locomotive had slammed into to remove the injured from the site. Other ladders were wrapped in blankets and used as makeshift stretchers to carry the injured. Cutting torches, like the ones brought by Little Falls DPW worker Alvin Brennan, were at a premium; as the torches were the most effective way to cut the twisted metal and steel that had trapped both crewmembers and passengers alike. Work continued through the night, and Little Falls Hospital was pushed to maximum capacity with what must have seemed like an endless wave of injured patients. Eventually, the Episcopal Church on Albany Street became a temporary shelter and first aid station.
By daybreak, an estimated 15,000 people lined the Gulf Curve site to get a glimpse of the disaster and traffic was backed up for about two miles outside of the city.
The investigation that followed determined the accident was caused by excessive speed around the Gulf Curve. The Lake Shore Limited was traveling westbound en route to Chicago. It had left Albany that night 21 minutes late and engineer Jessie Earl was no doubt trying to make up time. The speed limit on the Gulf Curve at the time was 45 miles per hour, and the speed of the locomotive at the time of the crash was 59 mph. This was proven by the speed tape that was recovered off the odometer of the engine. Was Earl aware of how fast they were going?
We’ll never know, as Earl died in the twisted metal of the cab with his hand still on the throttle. Overall, 31 people lost their lives and over 100 were injured as a result of the wreck.
This is but a quick overview of what happened on that tragic night of April 19, 1940. A far more detailed exhibit and telling of the story will be on display at the museum of the Little Falls Historical Society when it opens in late May. Were any corrective measures taken to prevent another tragedy on the Gulf Curve? I think we have the theme for a future article.