Revisiting the deadly Lackawanna Limited train crash

Halle Rose, Contributing Reporter

The morning of Aug. 30, 1943, started like any other. Five hundred passengers boarded the Lackawanna Limited passenger train in Hoboken, New Jersey and departed on time, at 9:20 a.m., en route to Buffalo, NY. At 2:50 p.m., the train left Binghamton, NY, 30 minutes behind schedule but quickly making up for lost time. The Lackawanna Limited surged onwards through upstate New York at a speed of 80 miles per hour, passing through the rural communities of Elmira, Corning and Bath as the afternoon slipped into evening. Not one of the 500 passengers on board knew that at 5:22 p.m., as they were only 10 minutes behind schedule hurtling through the tiny town of Wayland, 29 of them would meet their demise in an unexpected and catastrophic collision. 

Today, the Lackawanna Limited passenger train, also known as the “Death Car,” is intact and on display at the Midwestern Railway Preservation Society (MRPS). Located on West Third Street in the industrial flats of lower Tremont, the MRPS was established in 1955 and occupies the historic B & O Roundhouse, the last major roundhouse (a building used by railroads to service trains) in the area to remain. Often referred to as the “train graveyard,” the MRPS is an entirely volunteer-run, non-profit organization committed to preserving local railroad history. Currently, MRPS focuses its efforts on collecting, preserving and restoring vintage cars and engines that, one day, it plans on displaying and operating in a railway museum. 

While the MRPS offers several different seasonal tours to the public, one titled “Come Investigate with the Orbs” has become a local Halloween favorite. On Aug. 30, 1943, when the Lackawanna Limited collided with a local freight, the engine of the freight train derailed, tearing open the side of the Lackawanna Limited’s fifth passenger coach. The freight engine, now tipped on its side, released boiler steam directly into the damaged coach, scalding the passengers inside to death. The operators of the freight train had failed to obey a stop signal and, assuming that, because the Lackawanna Limited was behind schedule, there was no immediate risk of a crash, moved on to the passenger train’s track—a decision that ultimately killed 29 passengers and injured 114 others.

76 years later, that fifth passenger coach rests in Cleveland’s train graveyard and is rumored to be haunted by the spirits of those who lost their lives inside it. Visitors to the MRPS can stand exactly where the unfortunate passengers would have stood before being boiled alive, and they can gaze out of the same windows survivors of the 1943 wreck smashed with their fists to release the steam and to escape the coach. Six of the deceased were Clevelanders, and are claimed to be among the ghosts that haunt the Lackawanna Limited to this day, stirring whenever the train moves or a window is slammed shut. On the “Come Investigate with the Orbs” tour, visitors are encouraged to take plenty of pictures, and to later look for shadowy figures in the background.

For the thrill-seekers, the MRPS holds open house events from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., offering the brave at heart a chance not only to cross paths with the supernatural but to also take a ride on one of the vintage trains that has already been restored. If ghost hunting isn’t your idea of a good time, the MRPS also provides holiday-themed tours for families and kids that feature Santa on a Caboose, along with cookies and gifts. There is an admission fee, but all proceeds contribute to the restoration of the B & O Roundhouse and the vision of someday establishing a museum of railway history in Cleveland. Visit the MRPS website to book tickets.