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Webster Wagner made his fortune and lost his life on the railroad

Wednesday, March 12, 2014 - Updated: 9:43 AM

By MATHEW RAPACZ

Special to the C-S-E

The railroad played a significant role in one of the saddest days in the history of Palatine Bridge when a native son, State Senator Webster Wagner, inventor of a railroad sleeping car and palace car, was laid to rest on January 17, 1882 after perishing in a horrific railroad accident. ?Born on October 2, 1817 in the town of Palatine, Wagner learned the wagon-makers’ craft from his brother James and became his partner in the carriage and furniture business. Although the business was unsuccessful, Wagner gained knowledge that was to serve him well later in life. His next position was Palatine Bridge station agent for the Utica and Schenectady Railroad, in charge of tickets, freight, baggage and express departments. ?Wagner saw the need for a railroad sleeping car in the 1850s but had no money to carry out his ideas. In 1858 George Gates, of Buffalo, who had been residing near Palatine Bridge, together with three partners, built four sleeping cars for use on the Central. They had berths, cheap blankets and pillows and a big problem with ventilation and cold drafts. In 1859, Wagner invented and patented the dome of an elevated roof, which allowed ventilation through the sides, solving the problem. ?A bigger problem was funding. Wagner convinced railroad magnate William H. Vanderbilt to let him convert a regular car into a sleeping car. A bigger test was convincing William’s father, Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, that the car would work. After a careful -- and for Wagner, tense -- tour, the Commodore gave his approval. “My heart dropped back in its place and I knew my fortune was made,” Wagner said. He was right. The Wagner sleeping cars and later the Wagner drawing-room (or palace) coaches came into widespread use, with the Pullman Company offering the main competition. Vanderbilt did insist that the cars be built by a company in which he had a financial interest. Wagner was company president to the time of his death.?Wagner became western Montgomery County’s most prominent citizen and his mansion and grounds were a showplace. Parties held there were grand affairs. (see page 55) In 1871, Wagner turned to politics and was elected to the New York State Assembly. In 1872 he was elected to the New York State Senate, a post he would hold to the time of his death. ?On that fateful 1882 winter’s day, the legislative session in Albany had wrapped up and legislators were anxious to flee the capital for the New York City area. Wagner, who also had a house in the city where his wife, daughters, and grandchildren were waiting, was one of those legislators. The Western Express from Chicago to New York City reached Albany 23 minutes late that day. Additional cars were added to the train to accommodate the politicians, the last two cars being Wagner coaches named the Empire and Idlewild.

The train reached Spuyten Devil Junction (now in the Bronx) at 7 p.m., when a heated axle necessitated a stoppage to give it time to cool. The conductor ordered a brakeman to signal the Tarrytown Special, which had left its station at 6:35. The brakeman apparently did not signal properly (or at all) and the Special, traveling at 25 miles per hour, came around a curve and struck the Idlewild, with Wagner one of its 12 passengers. The Special’s engine drove the Idlewild into the Empire with great force, knocking over the stove and lamps in the cars, setting the upholstery and woodwork ablaze. Passengers were jammed between the seats and sides of the car with no means of escape.

Nine of the Idlewild’s passengers, including Senator Wagner, died at the scene with dozens more injured. The Senator’s remains, found the next day, were charred and disfigured beyond recognition. He was identified by his memorandum book, newspaper clippings, watch -- which had stopped at 7:40 -- and other artifacts. Some of the other state officials on the train were injured but made it to safety. Assemblyman Theodore Roosevelt was uninjured.?Wagner was survived by his wife, the former Susan Davis of Palatine Bridge, son Norman, four married daughters, and grandchildren.?Wagner’s funeral train left New York City at 8 a.m. January 17 with four drawing cars and one baggage car, reaching Albany at noon, when additional coaches were added to accommodate the large number of legislators, state officials and railroad men who wanted to attend the funeral. At Palatine Bridge, every available place around the station was crowded with hundreds of people long before the train arrived at 1:40 p.m. From the depot, the hearse bearing the Senator’s remains proceeded to the Wagner mansion, located just off what is now State Route 5.?Only a small portion of people were able to get even standing room in the house, with most of the large crowd standing outside in the cold, awaiting the end of the long service, conducted by L.D. Wells of Valatie, former pastor of the Lutheran Church in Canajoharie. Immediately after the services, Wagner’s remains were conveyed to a private burial ground in the rear of his property and placed at the base of a granite monument erected for Wagner only a year earlier. ?Wagner’s obituary in the Mohawk Valley Register included the following: “On a recent trip over the road, riding in the drawing-room coach Empire, that was wrecked and burned Friday, he (Wagner) clasped his knees with his hands, threw his head back and, as he surveyed the bright interior of the coach, remarked to a newspaper friend: ‘I never expected to see my notions about comfortable cars quite come up to this.’”?The Wagner Palace Car Company, which covered about 37 acres in Buffalo, was sold to the Pullman Company in 1900.

     

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