Finding Humanity in the Great Shohola Train Wreck

I was delighted to find my way to the cemetery of the Old Congregational Church in Barryville for the Shohola Railroad Disaster Memorial Observance last Sunday, July 15.

It took me a couple of tries to find it.  It's high above the four corners of Barryville, tucked right next to the old church, which is now a private residence.  When I first walked up there, there was someone sitting on steps, which I assumed was the landowner.  I went down the hill and sought out wisdom and direction at McKean Realty.  I was fortunate to meet Gibson, known to his friends as Gibby, in his parking lot on his way out, undoubtedly to show some fabulous Upper Delaware property.

“Where’s the Old Congregational cemetery?” I asked. “I’m looking for the Memorial for the Great Shohola Train Wreck.”

“It’s right up there,” he said, “Is that what’s about all these cars here?”

“Yes,” I said, and added, “I was just up there, it looks like a private residence.”

“It is a private residence,” he said.  “The cemetery is right next to it.

So back I went and asked the boy still sitting on the steps (now I notice, playing on his phone,) whether there was a memorial service going on. 

“I guess,” he said, as he moved aside to let me pass.

And there, set back in great greenery, was indeed a gathering of people celebrating the 154th anniversary of the Great Shohola Train wreck.  In that wreck two Confederate soldiers, who were being transported, were wounded, tended to and later, after they died, buried in the church cemetery.

And ever since, there has been an honoring of that wreck and those Union and Confederate soldiers who died in it.

The graveside service was hosted by Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil war Department of New York Ellis Camp 124.

I learned about the two young men: John and Michael Johnson, who according to the research done by Luanne Storms, were not brothers. And who Patrick McCullough, Past Commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said were the farthest they had ever been from their home in the south.

Shohola historian George Fluhr remembered how Austin Smith’s (the Town of Highland’s former historian, now deceased) mother had tended those graves and annually remembered those lives lost on July 15, 1864.  It was a tradition that was taken over by Austin when his mother could no longer do it.

It was touching and very humanized ceremony.  Luanne spoke of life stories, George spoke of community and individual commitment to history, and Patrick remarked that this was not a celebration or commemoration  of “divisions, stakes, regions or causes but for young men who lost everything in a way they had no part in creating and none in shaping.”

Rather, he said, it was a great lesson that was “beyond cities battling monuments, cultural cleansing or striving to better fulfillment of the ideas of our Republic.  [When] Blue-gray bodies tangled together, the local citizens saw not loyalty or region, they found the humanity.”

Humanity, for sure, was on display on Sunday afternoon in the Old Congregational Ceremony.

It was a blending of history and community story that gives this Upper Delaware River Valley its identity, its present, and its future.

A reception at the Shohola Railroad & Historical Society Caboose, in Shohola, PA followed the one-hour commemoration.


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