The Chocolate Wreck: A Crash That Made National History

The Chocolate Wreck is the most famous train wreck of the New York, Ontario and Western Railroad’s history. Two years before the state of New York officially called it quits on the railroad, better known as the O&W or Old & Weary, and rail by rail sold it off, an interesting little incident occurred in our quiet town of Hamilton. It involves a train wreck, the razing of a coal shed, a diesel engine that flew 100 feet into the air and landed in a garden, Nestle crunch bars, and an unidentified (to this day) malicious troublemaker. “The Chocolate Wreck” or, depending on who you talk to, the “Wreck of the Flying Diesel Corps,” is one of those rare historical gems where you find yourself pleasantly surprised to discover that it’s actually true. As one author notes, “if you’re talking to someone in Hamilton today…about the O&W, the first question you’re asked is, ‘Did you hear about the wreck at the coal shed?'” You are about to hear about the wreck at the coal shed. It was raining and a little after 9 p.m. on September 27, 1955 when the ON-2, an O&W train on a nonstop route to Norwich, was passing through Hamilton. Going 34 miles per hour the train rode the rail past Hamilton depot, blew its whistle warning as it crossed Lebanon Street and should have continued on its merry way south towards Randallsville and finally Norwich when the train unexpectedly jumped the switch. The train violently collided into the Leland Coal shed as the front diesel engine leaped a full 100 feet before landing, right side up, in the garden of a hapless family living nearby. The coal shed was destroyed, surrounding coal yards were badly spoiled and a total of seven cars derailed. The Mid York Weekly from September 29, 1955 reported the incident rather uneventfully, conspicuously failing to make any mention of the chocolate, which would eventually make the wreck so famous. What the article might have reported is that several of the derailed cars were transporting Nestle chocolate and one car broke open, littering the accident scene with Crunch bars. Hamiltonian Michael Mordus, in an interview for the 1995 Hamilton Bicentennial Book, recalled the “Chocolate Train Wreck.” “We were coming home from work and as we approached Hamilton we heard there was a train wreck. We went back of Lebanon Street and saw that the train, instead of going down the track, went right over Leland’s Coal Yard ramp, with the cars, jumped off the track maybe 200 feet and tipped over. All the candy bars spilled out. The area kids had a ball getting candy until the authorities stopped the looting (Even we got a few bars!). The engineer and the other trainmen were taken to the hospital but I don’t think anyone was seriously hurt.” Mordus was correct on the last count. The four men in the train, indeed in the engine, which leapt a hundred feet into the garden, were taken to the Hamilton Memorial Hospital. Two were released shortly thereafter, two stayed for a couple of days, but none were seriously injured. If there had been a serious injury or fatality, the story of “The Chocolate Wreck” would certainly not be so jovial and in all likelihood, would not have become so legendary. While the children enjoyed their Nestle Crunch Bars and hundreds of other Hamiltonians assembled to view the plethora of chocolate bars and the mangled metal mess, clean up efforts began in earnest. By 11:45 pm, the Lebanon Street crossing was cleared for traffic. After a couple days, the entire wreck had been removed, the rails rebuilt. The O&W Railroad repaired the Leland’s Coal shed as well as the garden where the diesel engine landed.In the initial aftermath of the accident, the Mid York Weekly concluded that the accident was probably caused by a jammed switch. Yet an important consideration remains. Ten minutes before the ON-2 train met its fate supplanting the side of the Leland Coal shed, another train, US-2, traveling on the same rails, in the same southbound direction (in this case to Scranton) had traveled safely through Hamilton without incident. Did someone throw the switch in the ten minute interval following US-2’s passage through the village and ON-2’s arrival? No one was ever convicted of causing the wreck although guilty shadows were cast on two individuals. The first, Hamiltonian Bill Wilcox was 19 when the accident occurred. He was three years old when he went on his first O&W train ride, was known for hanging around the Hamilton Depot, and by all appearances, loved the O&W dearly. John Taibi, author of a book on the O&W Railroad in Hamilton, Pecksport, White Corners, Morrisville, Eaton Hill, Fargo, Eaton, and Randallsville, argues that this is precisely why Bill could not have possibly thrown the switch. Instead, Taibi offers an intriguing alternative, which surely says very little for the state of town-gown relations in 1955. A couple weeks after “The Chocolate Wreck,” for reasons that are not known, a Colgate University student was expelled.Worth the visit, there is currently an exhibit on the O&W Railroad including a model reconstruction of “The Chocolate Wreck” at the Hamilton Museum, housed in our town’s public library.