NIAGARA DISCOVERIES: Tragic train accidents of old

COURTESY NIAGARA HISTORY CENTERThe Martinsville train station in the early 1900s. 

In the early 20th century people were still relying on trains to get them from one destination to another. It wasn’t until the 1920s that automobiles began to become commonplace on the roads of Niagara County. Two accidents, both occurring in the month of July and both involving trains, took the lives of at least 12 people, seven of whom were children.

The first of these incidents occurred on Wednesday, July 11, 1906, in Martinsville, a hamlet in North Tonawanda. The train, described as a “double headed passenger trolley,” jumped the switch while heading south on the Buffalo & Lockport Railway.

The train had left Olcott Beach earlier in the evening and had already been in Lockport. It was scheduled to reach the Martinsville station at 9:10 p.m. on its way to Buffalo. Most of the passengers had just spent a summer’s day at the Lake Ontario resort. Just before arriving in Martinsville, the train was given the all clear to proceed to the station, presuming that the track was clear. Three hundred feet before the station, the passenger train collided with a standing New York Central freight train.

The front passenger car was completely destroyed, killing five people and injuring another dozen. Passengers in the second car were uninjured but were in a state of shock after the accident. Among the dead was the train motorman, John Biddleman, of Webb Street, Lockport, as well as Charles Hutchinson of Park Avenue. A 22-year-old mother and her three year old son from Buffalo, as well as another young woman from that city, were also killed. Another Lockport man, Lee Johnson, was not expected to survive his injuries. Most of the injured passengers were from Buffalo.

Ironically, Niagara County Coroner Dr. Jacob E. Helwig lived in Martinsville. He immediately began assisting the injured. The next day the Lockport Union-Sun left little to the imagination, reporting in gruesome detail the condition of the dead and injured passengers. Despite repeated denials by several railroad workers, human error was found to be the cause of the collision.

More than 20 years later, another tragedy occurred, this time in Niagara Falls. On the Fourth of July, 1927, Samuel and Mary Pavloff and six of their eight children were in an automobile driving south on Sugar Street (now Hyde Park Boulevard) toward Buffalo Avenue. They had just passed the community of Echota on their right and were approaching the railroad crossing just before Buffalo Avenue. A westbound New York Central passenger train blew its whistle and put on its brakes but the car did not stop and the train slammed into the automobile, splitting it in two and sending the passengers flying through the air. Mary Pavloff and all six children were killed. Samuel Pavloff sustained serious but non life-threatening injuries.

To compound the tragedy, there was some kind of confusion over the services and the burial of the victims. Mrs. Pavloff and the two oldest children had funeral services at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Niagara Falls. Services for the four younger children were conducted by Rev. Mr. Albert Bacon of the First Presbyterian Church in Niagara Falls. Burial was scheduled to be at Holy Trinity Cemetery in Lewiston but when the procession arrived it was discovered that the graves were in separate parts of the cemetery, three in the consecrated area and four in the unconsecrated area. Samuel Pavloff immediately objected to this arrangement and the procession turned around and went to Oakwood Cemetery in Niagara Falls.

Since burial plots were not ready at Oakwood, the caskets were left in the vault until graves could be dug. Then the seven Pavloff family members were all buried together. Seven identical stones now mark their final resting place.

Ann Marie Linnabery is the assistant director of the History Center of Niagara.