Tragedy visited the sleepy community of Cuyahoga Falls on July 31, 1940 at 6 p.m. when a northbound freight train plowed head-on into the one-car Doodlebug commuter train between the crossings at Front Street and Hudson Drive.
The resulting impact, and fire in the passenger section, caused the deaths of 43 of the 46 people on board. The only survivors were the Doodlebug's engineer, conductor, and another employee, who managed to jump from the train just moments before impact. There were no injuries to those on board the two-locomotive, 73-car freight train.
The Doodlebug was operated by the Pennsylvania Railroad on a dedicated run between Hudson and Akron. As fate would have it, the freight train experienced a three-hour departure delay and should have completed its trip from Columbus to Cleveland long before the 'Bug' was heading south. By the same token, the Doodlebug was to have pulled onto a siding at Silver Lake to let the freight through. It did not.
The cause of the crash was cited as: "Failure to obey an order," but formal charges were never brought against the engineer. According to Liz Cross, curator of the Cuyahoga Falls Historical Society, "The accident remains the worst disaster in Cuyahoga Fall's history and one of the worst train wrecks in all of Northeast Ohio."
Self-propelled railroad cars were commonly referred to as "Doodlebugs," although the origin of the term is uncertain, and it also applies to other small vehicles. Typically, a gasoline-operated engine powered a generator which in turn provided energy to an electric traction motor that turned the axles. Doodlebugs were built by the Electro-Motive Corporation beginning in 1924 and used coach bodies built by Pullman and the St. Louis Car Company. They provided passenger and mail service on branch lines that were not heavily used.
Rich Merino (91) and Minnie Wagner (93), both of Hudson, would ride the Doodlebug to Akron to shop. Asked what she remembered about the Doodlebug, Wagner stated, "I rode it to Akron, a lot, by myself. I was probably 18. It ran a long time. Many, many years. It just went to Akron. It seems to me it was one car and it went straight through to Akron," she added.
Asked if he ever rode it, Merino said, "Yep, my mother took us to Akron to go to Federal's [Department Store] and O'Neil's to buy clothes, and we took the Doodlebug." Asked how long it took to get to Akron, Merino replied, "A half-hour...little over a half-hour, maybe." He added that it made no stops. Asked what the experience was like – was it more like a train, or a trolley? – he thought for a moment and replied, "I can't remember, but I kind of thought it was more like a train, because when I was a kid, I figured it was a train. It didn't ride like a train though, it rode a little different."
Asked if the seats were comfortable, or were they more like a bus seat and hard-backed? Merino responded, "I can't remember, I was just a kid, I didn't know what was comfortable," he said with a laugh, "or what wasn't comfortable," he added. "I rode on it when I was younger, probably before the teens." Merino did not remember the cost of a ticket. "My mother would have paid for it. I had no idea what it cost. I didn't ride it too much, but I remember, you looked way down in the Gorge, it went by the Gorge, where the river was, and it was kind of scary because I was just a young kid."
Asked what the experience was like, Wagner said, "It went back and forth, like this [sways from side to side]. It wasn't like riding a bus. The seats weren't nice seats, no, they were just leather, old leather seats. In some spots it went fast. It went faster than the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad train does," she added. It went right to Akron and let us off there."
Wagner said she did not remember where the Akron station was, nor did she remember the cost of a ticket. "Probably I went to Polsky's," she replied, when asked what she might have done in Akron in those days. Wagner heard about the accident on the radio while babysitting some children in the neighborhood. "I was shocked," she said. Neither Merino nor Wagner was motivated to visit the site the next day.
But three Sill Middle School students were motivated, thanks to a school project, to raise funds to have a monument and memorial garden erected in 2005. Former students, Joseph Gajovski (20) and Nathan Gera (20) spoke with the Akronist by telephone and shared their memories of the school assignment. [A third student, Clarissa Melvin, also involved in the project, could not be reached in time to contribute to this article.]
What began as a seventh-grade group project soon turned into a visit to the mayor's office and a major capital fund-raising campaign, which ultimately resulted in the creation of the beautiful Doodlebug Memorial Park along the banks of the Cuyahoga River next to the railroad tracks. Gera explained, "It started out as a 'mock-project' that was just supposed to be something that we thought would be worthy of building a monument to. I remember kids were doing stuff for Michael Jordan and stuff like that. Then we found the Doodlebug and we thought that was more worthy...because these were actually lives lost of local people. And it just came from being mock to real life. We got the idea from a magazine called Then and Now. He added, "That's where we found the actual Doodlebug story."
Neither student had heard of the accident before. Said Gajovski, "We didn't hear anything about that until we did research for local things, just anything around here in the city that we could do the project on, that we could identify with, and we found it in a book of history that our neighbor gave to us."
As to how many people were involved in this particular project, Gajovski said, "For the actual student project, we were assigned in groups of five and after we took it to the mayor, the three of us pursued it farther and then the continued maintenance was mostly Nathan and I. We took it to the mayor first and he thought it was a good idea. Then we went into a city council meeting and we presented our idea to them." Gera added, "There were a couple of other kids involved in it when we first started out, but as it progressed, a couple of the kids fell out or even moved to a different group. I remember it being me, Clarissa and Joseph, and after the monument got put up it kind of was left to me and Joseph to take care of it."
Once the project was approved, the resourceful students set about the task of raising the money to make it a reality. A special Doodlebug fund was set up at FirstMerit Bank where donations were accepted. Also, inscribed paver bricks were sold for $150. In excess of $5,000 was soon raised. Gera said, "We had Summit Memorial do the actual monument. They did it for no cost other than the granite price. The mayor donated the piece of city property to us to put the monument up on." He went on to explain, "We wanted to put it where the actual crash site was. There is a grass strip between Hudson Drive and Rt. 59 and we were going to put it there, and the mayor said how about we actually put it over here, because people can actually come and sit down and enjoy it and not to have to worry about somebody getting run over."
The students themselves designed the monument and came up with the inscription and submitted it as their class project. The plans were turned over to the monument company who assisted with giving it a professional look. Gera said, "We did a 'mock-size' for class and then we did our own big one for our real-life city one." Gajovski added, "We went down to the monument company and we actually assisted them in the carving out of the monument as well as doing the gardening at the site. We also put all of the brickwork in ourselves. We pretty much did everything ourselves. We had help from other people and our families."
Gera said the design of the site came from Your Backyard landscapers. "They gave us the design, but the students did all the work down there. We designed what the monument looked like and Summit Memorial just put it on a bigger scale. The students came up with the inscription and all other information on the stone."
When an announcement ran in a local newspaper with a picture of one of the Doodlebug cars, a sharp-eyed reader noted a discrepancy. "Somebody contacted us and told us that was the wrong model," Gajovski said. "They provided us with the actual model of the car and we were able to change it before we got the actual monument put up." Gajovski added, "We appreciate the continued interest. The reason we made it was because we wanted to remember that. Because it was such a local catastrophe, and I had, personally, as a child and teenager never heard anything about that happening in Cuyahoga Falls and I was real shocked."
The inscription the Sill students came up with reads: "On an average summer day, a passenger shuttle that ran from Hudson, Ohio, to Akron, Ohio, collided head on with a 73-car freight train. There were 46 passengers aboard. It was the worst crash in Cuyahoga Falls history." The students received national recognition and made a trip to Orlando, Fla., to accept the Keep America Beautiful award. Gera is employed by Aspen Tree Service and Gajovski is working in the area and will be attending college in the fall.