Wednesday, October 17, 2012

1875 Woodfield Train Disaster

The following article first appeared in the Fall 2012 edition of the WH Community Support Association newsletter.

Wreckage of the South Side Railroad disaster at Woodfield, purportedly the oldest surviving image of a train wreck on LI.  The Wreck occurred on the David Bedell farm, currently the site of the former Stop & Shop on Woodfield Rd. From the WH Historical Society archives.

Here’s a pop question: name the worst ever human disaster in the history of West Hempstead?  One would have to go all the way back over 137 years for the answer -  the South Side Railroad train wreck at Woodfield on February 3, 1875. (Update: Ironically at the same time this article went to print, West Hempstead learned about an awful car crash on the Southern State Parkway that killed four teenagers, matching the human life toll suffered in the Woodfield train disaster).   The following is a brief recap of that calamitous incident and the events that lead up to it.  But in order to understand what happened, some background information is necessary involving two important geographical features of West Hempstead that have long since disappeared – the headwaters of Schodack Brook and the path of the Hempstead-Valley Stream branch of the Southern Railroad.

Schodack Brook and the David Bedell Farm

Schodack Brook is a small rivulet which runs southward through Lakeview and empties into Schodack Pond in Hempstead Lakes State Park.  The brook can still be viewed today running though the residential section of Lakeview, just east of Woodfield Rd., but years ago it extended further north through what is now the site of the former Stop & Shop property.  In the late 1800’s that property was part of a large farm owned by David Bedell, who moved there with his wife Ruth (Rhodes) Bedell shortly after their marriage in 1843.  (That marriage brought together two of the more prominent families of West Hempstead whose roots in the local community date back to the very founding of Hempstead Village. David was a son of Hiram K. Bedell who had lived on a farm on the north side of Hempstead Turnpike.  Ruth was the daughter of William Rhodes whose large homestead sprawled along the east side of Woodfield Road and occupied much of the land that would become known as Hempstead Gardens.  The sole remaining visible legacy of the Rhodes estate is what is purported to be the oldest standing house in West Hempstead in its original location, the modest home at 419 Woodfield Rd, circa 1839).

The above map, circa 1873, shows the route of the South Side RR's Hempstead line through Woodfield at the bottom, with David & Ruth (Rhodes) Bedell's home just north of the tracks.  Further north along Woodfield Rd. are the homes of three of Ruth Bedell's Brothers, William L., Jacob and Isaac Rhodes.

Southern Railroad

In the mid-nineteenth century, Hempstead Village was displeased with being bypassed by the Long Island Railroad’s main line which ran three miles to the north, despite being one of the largest villages in western Long Island. Though since 1839 Hempstead was provided a shuttle train that connected to the LIRR’s main line at a depot called Hempstead Branch (later Mineola), villagers were looking for a more direct and reliable connection to points west.  By 1868, they found their answer in the South Side Railroad, a competing line to the LIRR that targeted the growing but underserved communities of Long Island’s South shore.  The South Side RR laid a single-track route from Valley Stream to Hempstead which was completed in 1870 and service began in September of that year.  (The branch should not be confused with the path of the existing WH branch of the LIRR built some 23 years later).  The route spurred off at Valley Stream and ran northeast, paralleling Cornwell Ave. until it crossed at Franklin Ave. in present-day Malverne where a station called Bridgeport was located.  Thereafter, it headed on a virtual straight path to Norwood station, located just south of Hall’s Pond (site of the St. Thomas Chapel parking lot).  Proceeding northeastward, the track passed Woodfield Depot at the intersection of Woodfield Rd. and Oakford St., and then over an embankment and culvert at Schodak Brook (at the present site of the old Stop & Shop).  The line then turned slightly northward where it ran through the woods and finally terminated in Hempstead Village.  No trace of this old line exists any longer, with the possible exception of a small access road that runs behind the WH Water District’s Birch St. Plant.

On January 31st, 1875, the area experienced unusually strong rains that swelled the ponds and brooks of Long Island. At Woodfield Depot, the water backed up behind the culvert, and flooded David Bedell farm.  Bedell’s house was located just 70 yards north of the railroad bridge over the brook, and when the water level came within inches of the top step of his porch, he directed his family to roll up the rugs on the main floor so they wouldn’t get ruined.  On the evening of February 3, the managers of the South Side RR instructed an eight man crew to run a single engine and passenger car to Hempstead to verify the safety of the road and make any necessary repairs.  The crew proceeded slowly over Schodack Brook without incident and reached the terminal in Hempstead.  At around 8 PM, on the return train, the weight of the engine undermined the bridge, sending it backwards into the flooded creek and causing an enormous explosion that could be clearly heard as far away as Garden City.  The engineer, James Scott of Hempstead, was killed instantly.  Benjamin Carman, the brakeman and Eli Thorpe, trackmaster, were also killed.  Bernard Callahan, the fireman, survived the blast but was pinned down by the debris and drowned to death in the water.  Three of the four others on the train were severely injured.  The dead bodies were brought to David Bedell’s barn where the Hempstead coroner examined their cause of death.  A photo of the incident remains as the oldest surviving image of a train wreck on Long Island.

In the following months, an investigation of the incident revealed that the South Side Railroad was responsible for the shoddy construction of the Hempstead Branch and they were ordered to make repairs and pay for damages.  A couple of other fatal incidents sealed the fate of the South Side.  On April 30, 1879, less than ten years from when the line was opened, the last train rode the Hempstead - Valley Stream branch.  The South Side went bankrupt and its assets were sold at auction.  Locals had always hoped that another concern would purchase the Hempstead line and reopen it.  Instead, the buyer tuned out to be Henry Hilton, manager of the Garden City Company, who had no intention of reopening the line.  In all likelihood, his purchase was an attempt to protect his Garden City line from nearby competition.  West Hempstead would have to wait 1893 before it regained rail service, when the LIRR built the existing branch.

David Bedell continued to live at Woodfield until 1896 when he sold his farm to Edwin C. Duryea.  The Bedells lived to celebrate their 63rd wedding anniversary in 1906.  That year, Ruth passed away at age 90 and David was called to Heaven a few weeks later on July 4th, at age 93.

David and Ruth (Rhodes) Bedell at their 60th wedding anniversary- owners of the farm where the 1875 Woodfield train wreck occurred.

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