ADRIAN — They remain unknowns, but the scores of Italian immigrants believed to have died in a fiery train collision near Adrian 115 years ago now have a monument to mark their grave site in a local cemetery.
Kyle Griffith, who inspired a search for records of the unidentified victims’ burial site, said during a memorial ceremony Saturday at Oakwood Cemetery that the crash victims could finally be properly honored.
“No one will ever have to ask, ‘Where are they?’ And no one will ever have to answer, ‘I don’t know,’ ” he said.
PHOTO GALLERY: Wreck on the Wabash ceremony
Father Enzo Addari blesses the sculpture unveiled during the Italian-American memorial service held to commemorate the wreck of the Wabash at Oakwood Cemetery in Adrian. The sculpture marks the burial site of five of the victims.
Mr. Griffith, an assistant superintendent in the Lenawee Intermediate School District and former history teacher, said he became fascinated by the Thanksgiving Eve train disaster when he led field trips to the collision site while teaching about Industrial Age immigration to the United States.
Inevitably, he said, a student from each year’s class would inquire about what became of the victims’ remains, and he couldn’t tell them.
But last November, he implored Mayor Berryman to see if records could be found that might lead to the graves’ discovery.
Several months later, Chareen Goven, a city clerk, found burial records from 1901 with five listings for “victims — railroad accident.”
Descriptions of neighboring burials confirmed the site where the memorial was dedicated Saturday.
The ceremony featured the dedication and blessing of a cast-relief sculpture, created by an Italian-American artist, at the previously unmarked burial site of five coffins containing victims’ remains from the Nov. 27, 1901, wreck on the Wabash Railroad in nearby Seneca, Mich.
Father Enzo Addari, a Detroit-area Italian priest, also blessed an urn containing additional remains from the train disaster that had been collected and donated long ago to the Lenawee County Historical Museum. The urn will be buried at the same grave site.
“With you, we are remembering a particular moment of the history of our emigration, mourning many tragic events, but also rich in success stories, and constantly changing and inspiring a new spirit in the young generations,” Michele Schiavone and Silvana Magnione, secretary-general and deputy secretary-general of the General Council of Italians Abroad, wrote in a letter read aloud during the ceremony by Maria Luisa Lapresa, the Italian consul in Detroit.
“Today starts a new chapter in the history of the 1901 events,” Adrian Mayor Jim Berryman said. The monument, he said, “will serve as a reminder to all who visit this place that this country of opportunity came with the sacrifices of many.”
The sculpture, cast in architectural resin with a marble-like finish, features symbols of the disaster and its victims, including a female figure crowned with the towers of San Gemigniamo and wearing funerary gauze over her eyes; the Italian flag of that time; a railroad track flanked by flames, and maple leaves representing the city of Adrian.
Sergio De Giusti titled the work Sogni Persi — Italian for Lost Dreams — and said he worked from historic photos of the train wreck and of the conditions under which immigrant miners worked at the time in Colorado and New Mexico, where the wreck victims were headed.
The sculptor said he emigrated to the United States in 1954 for the same reason the train travelers did: “Looking for a better life.”
“These Italians never had the opportunity to fulfill their dreams,” Mr. De Giusti said.
Roughly 200 people attended the public graveside ceremony — more than half of whom also attended a preceding celebratory brunch at Siena Heights University.
Having kept no manifest of passengers who boarded the train, the Wabash reported an official death toll from the collision and subsequent fire of just 23 people, although news reports immediately afterward estimated between 80 and 100 fatalities. The Wabash also notoriously refused to allow a priest who traveled to the wreck site to bless the victims’ remains.
Norfolk Southern Corp. today operates the rails through Adrian that once were part of the Wabash main line. Mayor Berryman noted that Bruno Maestri, Norfolk Southern’s vice president for government relations and corporate communications, had personally donated the cost of the brunch.
“I am amazed and overwhelmed by all the emotion I’ve experienced today,” said Sandra Tornberg, president of the Italian American Cultural Society in Detroit. She further praised the “diligence and compassion” of the people in Adrian who spearheaded the graves’ discovery.
“We are here to pay our respects to our countrymen who would have remained in obscurity if not for their efforts,” she said. “I had never been to Adrian before. Now Adrian is one of my favorite places.”
Contact David Patch at: email@example.com or 419-724-6094.
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