Where did the idea come from to write about a train wreck that happened more than 140 years ago? Have you always been a train buff?
I wasn't before this book, but I sure am now! Beyond a grandfather who kept an extensive model railroad in his basement while I was growing up, I hadn’t really known much about American railroads and their colorful, dramatic history until my work on this project began. I wanted to write a book about the Angola Horror because I realized it was a great American story, one that had never fully been told.
What were trains like for passengers in 1867?
Start with cold and drafty, and go from there. Train journeys were long, jerky, cramped, and smelly, often unpredictable in terms of arrivals and departures. Women used to dread getting into the cars with long dresses and cloaks because of all the tobacco spit that clung to the walls and decorated the floor. And then there were the physical dangers train passengers faced in this era . . .
What is the most compelling story you uncovered in your research?
Given that the train wreck killed some fifty people, and that they all had compelling lives and reasons for traveling on the New York Express that day, it’s hard to pick just one. I was especially moved by the stories of the young mothers on the train that cold December day with their small children, some of them only babies. What they experienced was heartbreaking.
With which person in the book do you most identify?
As a journalist myself, I feel a sort of kinship with one man on the train who was a newspaperman. Charles Lobdell had been working at a paper in La Crosse, Wisconsin, but was traveling home to the East Coast to be married on Christmas Day. He was highly regarded as a young editor, and was at the start of what could have become a brilliant career. All that changed on the New York Express.
Your research about the Angola Horror has already generated an enormous amount of interest. What is it about this event that continues to fascinate people almost 150 years later?
There are many reasons: the stories of the victims and the survivors, both famous and ordinary; the way in which a disaster like this can illuminate a particular moment in history. One aspect of this wreck and its aftermath in particular stands out, though. Angola became a rallying cry of an outraged public in the latter decades of the nineteenth century as they demanded that railroads be made safer for all Americans. In that respect, the legacy of Angola still matters.