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115-year old train crash that killed 100 Italian immigrants still stirs deep emotion

Jul 19, 2016

People from the Adrian area and local historians know the story of the “wreck on the Wabash.” But outside of those circles, the train crash that took place in 1901 isn’t especially well-known.

The train wreck made news all over the world back in 1901
Credit Jodi Westrick/Michigan Radio

There are many tragic elements to this story and for a thorough sense of what took place, you can read historian Laurie Perkins’ book, “Wreck on the Wabash” (written under the name Laurie C. Dickens).

In short, two trains collided. One was carrying 100 Italian immigrants, packed into two wooden cars with only bench seating. Another was carrying commuters headed back to Detroit for the Thanksgiving holiday. The impact created an explosion that was heard and seen for miles, between the small towns of Seneca and Sand Creek, Michigan.

The scene was horrific. And even though the local townspeople quickly came to try and save anyone they could, most of the immigrants were trapped inside the burning cars and killed.

Their remains were hastily buried in an unmarked grave. In fact, their whereabouts were unknown until this past year, when school administrator and former history teacher Kyle Griffith had to find where they were located.

This story has always moved him. Griffith would teach his students about the event and they’d recreate it. They’d discuss how we treat immigrants today versus in 1901 and talk about how history has a tendency to repeat itself.

Griffith has been especially haunted by the mystery of where the bodies were buried.

“I would reflect on it, oftentimes I’d go out to the actual scene. I’d tell my own children about it. It just bothered me.”

He asked Adrian Mayor Jim Berryman to help him find where the immigrants were buried so they could make a memorial. With the mayor’s help and months of serious sleuthing from the staff at Oakwood Cemetery they found the immigrants in an unmarked grave at the back of the cemetery.

In the meantime, the mayor and Kyle Griffith have reached out to local Italian American groups to get them involved.

They’re very interested, even though they had never heard this story until now.

Adrian Mayor Jim Berryman (far left) speaks with a group of Italian-Americans, including Domenico Ruggirello (third from left)
Credit Lad Strayer

Domenico Ruggirello is president of a non-profit called Comites. It’s based in the U-S but organized by the Italian Government. He chokes up when I ask him what he thought when he heard this story.

“I’m very emotional and hearing this was a shock,” he says. “Because as you know, we are immigrants like those people were. We know how they felt and what they could go through.”

He says this tragedy is a story that should be known because there are still immigrants taking risks for better lives.

A special dedication is planned at Oakwood cemetery on September 24th. It will include the unveiling of a monument created for the memorial, made by Italian-American artist Sergio De Guisti.