John D. Rockefeller was running late on the morning of December 18, 1867.
When he climbed out of bed in his modest house on Cheshire Street in Cleveland that frigid Wednesday to catch the early morning express to Buffalo, he had business on his mind. Even though it was the holiday season--just a week before Christmas--Rockefeller had decided to make a quick business trip to New York City. He wanted to check on his East Coast operations, where his brother, William, managed the New York offices of Rockefeller & Company.
But he got a late start that morning, which was not like him at all.
Perhaps it had been all the packing. Rockefeller planned to squeeze in some holiday visits with friends and family in New York before returning home for Christmas, so into his suitcases he packed the gifts he intended to give to his relatives and associates there. That done, he sent his bags ahead of him to Cleveland's Union Station, and bid goodbye to Laura, his wife of three years, and Elizabeth, their 1-year-old daughter. He then headed off to catch his train.
Rockefeller was 28, a successful young businessman already widely known in Cleveland and the oil refining industry. A disciplined man, Rockefeller prided himself on hard work and a demanding schedule. He kept a sharp eye toward his own advancement, demanded a lot of others and drove himself harder than anyone. He knew that if he caught the 6:40 a.m. Lake Shore Express, due in Buffalo around 1:30 in the afternoon, he could then take the 6 p.m. New York Central Express, which would deliver him into Manhattan by 7 the next morning, in plenty of time to make full use of the business day.
Although his plans were meticulously arranged, Rockefeller pulled into Cleveland's Union Station just a few minutes too late; his bags made the train but he didn't, and it saved his life.
By missing the Lake Shore Express that morning, Rockefeller escaped one of the worst railroad accidents in 19th-century America--the "Angola Horror," as newspapers subsequently dubbed it. At a little past 3 in the afternoon, while crossing over a high railroad bridge in the western New York village of Angola, the last two cars of the Buffalo-bound express jumped the tracks and tumbled 30 to 50 feet into the icy, treacherous gorge below. Both cars burst into flames, trapping passengers inside and immolating them into blackened heaps of indistinguishable remains. Rockefeller, as a latecomer to the Cleveland station, would have sat in the end car.
Nearly 50 people died and many more were burned and badly injured in the disaster, which--coming as it did just before Christmas--gripped the imagination of a nation still reeling from the Civil War that had ended two years earlier. Accounts of the tragedy, replete with grisly illustrations, filled the pages of newspapers and periodicals across the country for weeks--and prompted calls by the public for safer trains, tracks and rail car heating methods. "The name...