This week for “Throwback Thursday”, we look at a true story of horror and heroism that unfolded at Washingtonville’s Erie Depot on September 16th, 1914. The headline of Elmira’s Star Gazette on the 21st of September read “ENGINEER DIES WHILE AT POST: Fortunately, Fireman Discovers Dangerous Fact in Time to Prevent Wreck – Years With Erie Railroad”.
On Wednesday, September 16th, Engineer James O’Brien, who “had complained a little recently of not being in the best of health, but there was no sign of this” boarded his train at Newburgh and made the run through Washingtonville to Greycourt, near Chester. On the return trip, Fireman Theodore Balmos, who was responsible for making sure the engine had enough fuel to maintain its speed, noticed that O’Brien didn’t whistle as the train was passing a road crossing. Sensing something was wrong, the fireman noticed engineer O’Brien doubled up and unresponsive. The fireman immediately gained control of the train and brought the train to a halt after turning off the steam and applying the brakes as the train pulled into the Washingtonville depot.
“Without knowledge of the grim tragedy which had been enacted in the cab of the engine which was drawing them, the passengers on a Newburgh branch train of the Erie road into the Washingtonville station Wednesday night, each intent upon his or her own interests. It was not until their attention had been drawn by the unaccustomed delay and the scurrying about of the railroad men that they came to a realization of the peril through which they had passed, for only a moment before death had been at the throttle of their locomotive, and a faithful old engineer had passed away”
Engineer James O’Brien’s body was returned to Port Jervis and was buried on Monday, September 21st. Fireman Balmos continued to serve the Erie railroad for many years after and retired as an engineer in 1954 after serving the railroad for 50 years.
James O’Brien’s unfortunate death wasn’t the only one recorded by the Erie in 1914. One month earlier, William T. Hineman was killed after his train collided with another engine at Deposit, New York, and engineer William B. Burt was killed as a result of a boiler explosion near Corning, New York in July.
“Engineer Dies While At Post.” Star-Gazette. September 21, 1914.
Sponholz, James. “ICC Reportable Accidents and Other Events – Erie Railroad.” The Erie Railroad, Linking Chicago and Jersey City-New York Erie Logo. Rootsweb, 2006. http://freepages.rootsweb.com/~sponholz/genealogy/iccerie.html.
“Retirements.” Erie Railroad Magazine, September 1954.
This month we are looking at the strange, unusual, and legendary every “Throwback Thursday” in October! This week we are highlighting this 1956 copy of Cowboy of the Ramapos by Marjorie Sherman Greene. In this work of historical fiction, main character Geoffrey Blackburn, a scout for George Washington’s army, must find the hideout of Claudius Smith, the leader of a band of Loyalist outlaws known as the “Cowboys”. Although this is a work of fiction, Claudius Smith, and his Cowboys really did exist!
Claudius was born on Long Island in 1736, but settled in present day Monroe New York in 1741. In 1762 he enlisted in Colonel James Clinton’s Company of Ulster County Militia and served in the French and Indian War. Following the end of hostilities in 1763, he made a name for himself as a criminal and was imprisoned for “debt, theft, and rioting”. During the American Revolutionary War, both Blooming Grove, and Monroe were on the periphery of a conflict that engulfed the thirteen rebelling colonies. Many individuals took advantage of the fractious nature of this war to settle old scores and take advantage of others who they disliked prior to the opening of hostilities on April 19, 1775. Those who supported the cause of independence were known as “Patriots”, and those who adhered to the authority of Great Britain were known as “Loyalists”, but the degree and motivation of an individual to adhere to one principal to another varied greatly, especially when state sponsored bounties were placed on the heads of officials and local community leaders.
Claudius and his two sons Richard and James remained loyal to the crown, while his other son sided with the Revolutionaries. Despite his allegiance, Claudius socialized with the Brewster and Gale families, the Brewsters being adherents to the Patriot cause. On October 6, 1778 when Smith and his gang robbed Ebenezer Woodhull’s property and murdered Major Nathaniel Strong, who is buried in Washingtonville Cemetery. A description of the event was recorded following a coroner’s interview with Ebenezer’s wife Abigail:
A coroner’s report for October 8th: “Mrs. Woodhull being duly sworn saith that on the night of the sixt of this instant, Claudius Smith and a party of armed men came to hur [sic] house about twelve O clock, and did rob hur [sic] and wish hur [sic] Husband was at home for he would have him ded [sic] or a live.”
Nathaniel Strong’s wife recounted “about One O Clock she heerd [sic] sum [sic] men knocking at the dore [sic] and braken [sic] the windows, on which hur [sic] husband got up and askt [sic] who was there; they answered a friend; on which they ordered him to lay down his arms and open the dore and they would not hurt him; he answered he would if he could; they told him to lay down his gun; he said he had; on which he stept forred [sic] and was shot by the party that had attackted [sic] the house and further she heared hur [sic] husband say it was Claudious Smith”
A reward for $1,200 for Claudius and $600 for his sons and John McArthur as well as $300 George Davis and Nathaniel Biggs was ascribed by the state legislature. Despite pleas of help from New York Governor George Clinton, Claudius and his gang continued raiding and harassing prominent leaders who identified as Patriots, including the home of Robert Erskine on November 11, 1778. Smith was eventually captured by Major Jesse Brush while hiding on Long Island, then occupied by the British, and executed January 22nd, 1779. His son Richard continued as gang leader until fellow members William Cole, and William Welcher confessed their crimes to authorities, as the war was winding down and it became clear they would be on the losing side. This resulted in the outing of those who harbored the gang and thus undoing their support network.
There are many stories that revolve around Claudius Smith, but perhaps the most unusual, and gruesome is the story that Claudius Smith’s head skull was embedded in the masonry of the 1841 Goshen Courthouse. This incident is the subject of a Legends & Lore marker, which was dedicated on October 30th, 2016. On May 1st, 2021, a related marker was unveiled at Washingtonville Cemetery, noting it as the final resting place of Major Nathaniel Strong.
Bellamy, Lana. “Murdered patriot’s grave, Washingtonville Cemetery marked with new sign” Times Herald-Record, May 3, 2021
Croswell, E. Documents of the Senate of the State of New York, Vol. 12. Albany.,1900
Dewey, Charles. “Terror in the Ramapos” Journal of the American Revolution, March 25, 2019.
New York Colonial Muster Rolls, 1664-1775: Report of the State Historian of New York, Vol.2. Baltimore
Sweetman, Jennie. “Historic marker dedicated for Smith, ‘Cowboy of the Ramapos’” New Jersey Herald, November 5, 2017.