Tracks in history

A backyard railroad tragedy heard ‘round Warren County

My great-grandfather Fredrik Wilhelm Jonasson and his brother Axel Henrik Jonasson emigrated to America from Sweden around 1890. Upon arrival, the Jonassons adopted the Anglicized “Johnson” spelling for their surname. While Axel operated a 60-acre farm between Mayville and Sherman, New York they had jointly purchased, Fredrik at some point met Jennie Hofstedt of Stoneham, Warren County, and they were married on April 27th, 1894 in Jamestown, New York.

By 1900 Fredrik and Jennie Johnson lived next door to Jennie’s parents Johan and Johanna Hofstedt (also Swedes) on Griff Hill Road in Stoneham. Both homes stand to this day, although they now have U.S. Route 6 addresses. My grandfather Ellsworth Johnson was the fifth child born to Jennie and Fredrik, in Stoneham in 1915. His siblings were Harold (who died in infancy), Lillian, Violet, Fred Jr., and Charlotte.

Before he died in 2008, my grandfather related a number of stories about growing up in the house in Stoneham, the interior of which was austere, had bare wooden floors, and was sparsely furnished. Before the Johnsons had electricity and therefore refrigeration, they had blocks of ice delivered from Warren by horse and carriage, used gas lighting, and of course there was no automatic washer or drier. They washed their laundry by hand and hung it out to dry behind the house. The Philadelphia & Erie Railroad ran close by, crossing Griff Hill Road immediately behind their house, which could present practical issues – if they heard a train coming it was critical to quickly bring in any clean laundry that might be hanging out, otherwise it would be coated with soot from the passing train.

When Route 6 was constructed in front of their house in the 1920s, it dramatically altered the landscape in which my grandfather, his siblings, and their friends played, including destroying a tennis court they had constructed themselves just down the bank from their house. After Fredrik died in 1935, Jennie worked as a seamstress at home, and also took a position as a cleaning person at the Mineral Well Restaurant & Motel less than a half-mile away toward Warren, a job which she walked to and from until she began to lose her eyesight in the 1940s.

During the course of doing routine genealogical research in recent years, I discovered that more than a century ago the above-mentioned P & E Railroad tracks were also the site of a terrible accident that dramatically affected my great grandparents, and which was reported on by many local newspapers at the time. The Sheffield Observer, The Warren Mail, Warren Evening Mirror, and Warren Evening Times all provided front-page coverage. The story was also picked up by the Associated Press and carried in newspapers such as The Titusville Morning Herald in Crawford County, the Jamestown [New York] Evening Journal, and even as far away as in The Gettysburg Times. This was an event I had not heard of before, nor had anyone else alive in our family today.

Early on Sunday afternoon, October 22nd, 1911, James Gass, 49, a prominent physician residing in Sheffield, his wife Julana (Burlingame), 47, and their nine-year-old son Freddie, were on their way to the Emergency Hospital on Crescent Park in Warren in Dr. Gass’s 18-horsepower Hupmobile runabout automobile to check on some of his patients. Dr. Gass was evidently wont to employ the lightweight convertible in his professional work in Sheffield and environs. The vehicle was a two-seater, with Freddie utilizing a stool on the passenger side at his mother’s feet.

Where the railroad tracks cross Griff Hill Road behind my great grandparents’ house, the Gass vehicle was dealt a devastating blow by two “pusher” engines coupled together and returning downhill to Warren at approximately 25 miles per hour. The engines had just finished assisting a freight train up the grade toward Sheffield. The impact of the engines slamming into their car threw the Hupmobile 15 to 20 feet through the air (the Warren Evening Times cited the distance at 60 feet), turning it completely around. Dr. and Mrs. Gass were violently ejected from the vehicle and killed instantly, with ghastly injuries.

Miraculously, their son Freddie was not hurt but he too was thrown from the Hupmobile. It was speculated that Mrs. Gass herself may have heaved the boy clear in the instant before impact, thereby saving his life. The Warren Evening Times reported that the “terrible shrieks which rent the air must have preceded the collision, and elicited by the sight of the big locomotives racing upon them.” The first people on the scene were my nearby great grandparents Fredrik and Jennie Johnson. The Warren Evening Mirror quoted Fredrik as stating (likely in a noticeable Swedish accent):

“When I got there I found the car in the ditch and Mrs. Gass was partially in it. Her feet were in the car and her body was doubled up along the side of the ditch. I looked at her but there was no sign of life and I saw she was dead. Dr. Gass was a little ways from her and he too lay still and made no move. His head had been crushed on one side and he was bleeding from the wound and also from the mouth, nose and ears. Their son, Freddie, was further away from the automobile than any but he scrambled back by his mother and sat on the bank. He made no outcry or other noise.”

Both Dr. and Mrs. Gass had their necks broken. The entire car was smashed and all but obliterated. “Even the spokes were knocked out of the wheels,” it was written in the Warren Evening Times.

The Warren Mail reported that Jennie was overcome: “Mrs. Fred Johnson, residing near the crossing, who with her husband saw the accident and helped to carry the dead to her porch, collapsed a few minutes later and is under the care of a physician.”

It was raining on the day of the accident so the top was up on the Hupmobile, perhaps coupled with the downpour partially obscuring Dr. Gass’s view as he prepared to cross the tracks. Traveling toward Warren on Griff Hill Road, a driver must crane their neck around more than 90 degrees in order to look back down the tracks to the left. Also, the car had side curtains that may well have been drawn. Dr. Gass may have in fact noticed the engines coming, but simply decided he had enough time to cross anyway – the Jamestown Evening Journal reported that “Gass was said to be a reckless driver, and was fined for speeding through Warren several months ago” (though no source was provided for this claim). The Hupmobile may have faltered on the tracks – the Warren Evening Mirror speculated it might have been the case that “the engine of the automobile choked down and the machine failed to respond as had been expected.” Nine-year-old Freddie Gass was unable to provide any details into exactly how the accident came to pass due to his suffering from muteness.

The account of the crew of four manning the two engines was that they did not see the Hupmobile until they were nearly on top of it. Naturally, they hollered out a warning, but it was of course too late. The Warren Evening Times stated that “there was no crossing danger signal apparatus” at this intersection. Dr. Gass’s colleague, Dr. I.G. Hyer, at the time president of the Medical Society of the State of Pennsylvania, actually blamed the railroad company for the accident, lamenting in a memorial to Dr. Gass in the October 1911 edition of The Pennsylvania Medical Journal “the criminal carelessness of railroad corporations, who leave grade crossings unguarded.” Dr. Hyer further urged “our [elected] representative to use his influence to correct this serious evil.”

In any case, it was a fateful decision to cross the tracks at that moment that day which profoundly affected the Gass family, the Johnson family, Dr. Gass’s patients, and many others in Warren County too.

The Sheffield Observer noted of the funeral for Dr. and Mrs. Gass that there was “a large concourse of friends present and 778 persons were in the procession that passed the caskets to view the remains, and many others had taken a last look at the faces of the departed at the home. It was possibly the most largely attended funeral ever to be held in this vicinity.” The same paper also opined “while all death is accompanied by sadness, there is something truly pathetic about the sudden ending of these lives. A feeling of sincere sadness has swept over the entire community and the deepest sympathy of the people of Sheffield and vicinity goes out to the orphaned and doubly bereaved daughter and son.”

In addition to their son Freddie, Dr. and Mrs. Gass were survived by a 16-year-old daughter, Florence, who was not in the vehicle with her family that day, and who according to the Warren Evening Times was “nearly prostrated with grief upon learning that she was an orphan.” Dr. Gass was a native of Nova Scotia, Canada, and Mrs. Gass was a native of Elk County, Pennsylvania. They were laid to rest in Sheffield Cemetery at the top of the hill on Cemetery Road.

This somber event left an indelible mark on the Johnsons, and for decades later children and grandchildren were the recipients of stern warnings not to play on or near the railroad tracks. Though no one in my family today remembers the Gass tragedy specifically, the story still resonates with some older members because they recall the palpable air of trepidation associated with the tracks behind the home, and indeed with railroad tracks in general. It seems probable that it was the Gass tragedy which was the original source of the acute concern, passed down through the years. Members of the Johnson family lived in the homes near the Griff Hill Road railroad track crossing until the 1970s.

Kirk Johnson is a resident of Warren, Pennsylvania.

Sources:

Jamestown Evening Journal. “Auto Fatality.” Monday, October 23, 1911. page 5.

The Gettysburg Times. “Two Autoists Killed.” Monday, October 23, 1911. page 3.

The Pennsylvania Medical Journal. “In Memoriam – James Gass, M.D.” October 1911. page 422.

The Sheffield Observer. “Dr. and Mrs. Gass Killed.” Thursday, October 26, 1911. page 1.

The Titusville Morning Herald. “Sheffield Couple Killed on Sunday.” Monday, October 23, 1911. page 1.

The Warren Mail. “Two Killed at Grade Crossing.” Thursday, October 26, 1911. page 1.

Warren Evening Mirror. “Grade Crossing Accident Cost Lives of Autoists.” Monday, October 23, 1911. page 1.

Warren Evening Times. “Dr. James Gass and Wife Meet Horrible Death Sunday at 2:30.” Monday, October 23, 1911. pages 1 and 8.

COMMENTS