Throwback Thursday: October 21, 2021Matt Thorenz
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.