by Thomas Matowitz
June 21, 1905 began like many other bright summer days in Mentor’s long history. Before it was over, the community suffered the greatest disaster it has ever experienced. Railroad travel had been passing through Mentor since the mid nineteenth century, but the dawn of the twentieth century brought something new; high speed rail travel between New York City and Chicago offered by the New York Central Railroad’s crack passenger train, The Twentieth Century Limited.
Destined to become one of the best known trains in the history of American railroading, the Twentieth Century Limited had only been in operation for three years. An eastbound section traveling at high speed approached Mentor from the west. Afterword, Aaron Gorham, who was firing the locomotive that night, recalled that light signals indicated a clear track ahead and nothing out of the ordinary.
As the speeding train approached the Mentor depot at a speed of approximately seventy miles per hour, the locomotive suddenly lurched to the left, diverted from the mainline by an open switch to a siding leading to Mentor’s freight station. An emergency application of brakes was hopeless. The engine overran the siding and fell onto its side. The car immediately behind the engine and tender telescoped into them and caught fire, right on the heels of the locomotive’s boiler explosion.
The fire was quickly transmitted to other cars. Made of wood, they burned readily. The explosion and ensuing fire drew rescuers to the scene quickly, but the fire soon proved too much for them. Forced to retreat for their own safety, there was little they could do to help those trapped in the burning wreckage. The fire raged for a matter of four or five hours. When it was over, twenty-one passengers lay dead. Among them was C.H. Wellman, a close friend of wealthy Mentor summer resident Horace Andrews. Summoned to the scene of the accident, Andrews knelt beside his dying friend in time to hear a last message intended for Wellman’s wife.
Five others were seriously hurt, and several others to a lesser degree. Remarkably, a number of the train’s passengers walked away unhurt. An unlikely escape from death was granted to Aaron Gorham. Thrown from his post on the left side of the cab, he landed in a ditch , which saved him from being crushed when the tender crashed down on top of him. The locomotive’s engineer was not so lucky, dying at his throttle.
Recriminations began quickly, the railroad insisting that the event was no accident, but a deliberate act of sabotage. If true, that makes the incident Mentor’s greatest unsolved crime.
Mentor has undergone drastic physical changes over the past one hundred ten years, yet somehow the scene of the wreck remains easily recognizable today. On the north side of the track an old brick freight house replaces the structure destroyed in the crash. On the south side, the passenger depot remains easily recognizable despite being re-purposed many years ago as a restaurant and sports bar. It is unlikely that many of this establishment’s modern patrons are aware of the extent of the tragedy that played out literally on this building’s doorstep on a warm summer evening long, long ago.