Funerals by definition and experience are expected to be somber and dignified occasions, but the cermony scheduled for Mrs. Sarah Baker Pitts 97-years ago this month was truly a train wreck.
On the morning of January 19, 1923 Mrs. Pitts - born Sarah Baker in Charleston Township in 1848 - was coming back home to Mansfield for the final time. Although she had made the almost two-hour trip from Elmira to Mansfield over those steel tracks numerous times during her lifetime, her body now traveled encased in a coffin, tucked into a steel travel container in the baggage car of the Erie Railroad Tioga Division Train 257. Her four adult children and the mourning party occupying the two passenger cars directly behind the tender of the 50-year old steam engine.
The widow of John F. Pitts - one of Tioga County’s most prominent and respected citizens – Sarah was returning to Mansfield to be buried next to her husband in the Pitts family plot in Oakwood Cemetery.
Even today, the Pitts plot is one of the most extensive and distinguished on the Oakwood grounds. The plot contains the remains of the family patriarch Apollos Pitts as well as his extended family. Apollos, who married fellow Sullivan Township native Phoebe Mudge in 1832, was born in 1810 and later opened a mercantile business in Mansfield. He also served as the postmaster and Justice of the Peace. His sons Aaron M. and Daniel H. both served in the Civil War and later established what would become the largest store in town evolving into Pitts & Judge including the still standing Pitts block. John F., Apollos youngest son, would take over the family farm in Canoe Camp, serve as Richmond Township supervisor and later as County Commissioner and Supervisor of the Tioga County Poor Farm. He was still serving as the President of the Smythe Park Association when he and Sarah along with their four adult children moved to Elmira in 1914.
John F. died after suffering a stroke while supervising the building of the stock barn on the Smythe Park grounds in 1918. Sarah was living with her oldest daughter, Mrs. Mary Spencer, in Elmira when she died early in the morning of January 16 after a week-long illness.
The close-knit family arranged for a prayer service at their parents’ home prior to a slow procession to the Erie Station in Elmira to load the body for the trip to Mansfield. They were lost in their own thoughts and memories as the train chugged through Southport, State Line, Wells, Seeley Creek, Millerton, Trowbridge, over Jackson Summit and down into Tioga Junction before joining the main line and passing through Tioga, and Lambs Creek.
Perhaps surprisingly, the train was right on schedule as it approached Mansfield but as strange as it sounds – that timeliness would lead to disaster.
Around the bend leading into Mansfield a long New York Central train was moving coal cars, recently loaded in Blossburg, onto a siding at the milk plant now located at the site of the Mansfield borough garage behind the plaza. The New York Central had leased the track to move coal from Blossburg to Corning and was in the process of moving the cars onto sidings to clear the track for the passenger train.
However, the crew of the New York Central was under the impression that the Erie 257 was running late, and they had not yet cleared the main track. The Erie 257 was slowing as it rounded the bend but wasn’t expecting to come face-to-face with another locomotive. The signalman had to make a quick decision – throw the switch, which would have caused the trains to sideswipe forcing the passenger train to derail spilling the train and passengers into Corey Creek -- or let the engines collide head-on. Fearing the passengers would drown, the switchman chose the head-on collision.
By now, the conductor of the Erie frantically tried to stop the slow-moving mass of steel but failing to do so, leaped out of the cab along with other members of the crew. The conductor of the coal train did like wise but nobody had time to inform the passengers of the oncoming head-on collision.
The Erie had slowed significantly but the impact of the collision caused the passengers to be thrown around the cars causing serious bodily injury. Sarah’s youngest daughter, Mrs. Josephine Martin, suffered a serious head injury after being knocked unconscious while daughter Mary suffered cuts and bruises. Other passengers also suffered injuries as did the conductor.
Back in the baggage car, the collision sent Sarah’s coffin airborne traveling the length of the car until slamming into baggage master George Richter of Mansfield. Richter suffered numerous injuries including broken ribs and would not be able to return to work for nine months.
While accidents were an occupational hazard in the railroad industry and occurred with regularity in Mansfield – head-on collisions were exceptionally rare causing the rumor mill to churn with intensity that day.