Monday, May 11, 2020

Chemung County’s First Fatal Automobile Accident

by Erin Doane, Curator

On July 5, 1914, Dr. Sherman Voorhees, his wife Lilian, and their son Sherman, who was known as “Laddie,” were motoring along what is now Comfort Hill Road in the town of Ashland. Somehow, the doctor lost control of his 1913 Chalmers, and it went careening over an embankment. The vehicle rolled over and over, expelling the three passengers along the way, and came to rest in a field of daisies. Sherman was gravely injured; Laddie suffered from multiple cuts and bruises; and Lilian was killed almost instantly when her neck was broken. This is thought to have been the first fatal automobile accident in the county.

Portrait of Dr. Sherman Voorhees, Lilian Voorhees, and their son
Sherman Persons “Laddie” Voorhees, Star-Gazette, July 6, 1914
Sherman was a medical doctor who came to Elmira in 1897 to open a practice. Lilian was a socialite and philanthropist who was well known throughout the city. Laddie was a care-free 13 years old. It was a lovely, dry summer day when the family decided to take a drive over South Mountain. They could never have imagined how the day would take a tragic turn.

Where the Voorhees’ car toppled over the embankment,  
Star-Gazette, July 6, 1914
Laddie was the first thrown from the tumbling car. He suffered comparatively light injuries, and was able to rush to his mother’s side and then to his father. Unable to help either, he climbed back up the embankment and hurried to the home of William M. Kimball for help. Floyd Kimball and Morris Butman and his mother, who were spending the day at the farm, rushed back to the scene of the accident with him. Someone went to the home of Arthur Millard and more people came to help. Soon, dozens had arrived to offer assistance including several doctors and the motor patrol from the city. Despite all efforts, there was no saving Lilian. 

Dr. Voorhees’ car after the accident, Star-Gazette, July 6, 1914
Many worried that Sherman’s injuries were so severe that he would soon follow his wife, but he slowly and steadily improved over the course of many weeks. By early August he was finally able to move around his home on crutches, and in late August he was taken to the Glen Mary Sanitarium in Owego to speed his recovery. One month into the stay, he was walking about the sanitarium yard and was recovering his physical vigor. On October 9, it was announced that he would finally be returning home.

While Sherman was undergoing his convalescence, Laddie was also recovering physically and emotionally. He joined the newly-formed boy scout troop in Elmira and was chosen as No. 3 patrol leader. On October 10, the day his father returned from his stay at the sanitarium, Laddie and Scoutmaster John G. Addey led a boy scout hike to Daggett’s beyond Bulkhead.

While Sherman’s return home was celebrated, he never did recover from the injuries he suffered in the crash. Shortly after leaving Owego, he went to Atlantic City for three weeks then spent some time in New York City before moving in with his sister Dr. Belle V. Aldridge in Brooklyn. On May 1, 1915, ten months after the accident, Dr. Sherman Voorhees passed away from complications which developed from a fracture at the base of his skull. His body was brought back to Elmira on Erie train No. 7, and he was interred next to Lilian in Woodlawn Cemetery.

After Sherman’s death, John N. Willys of Elmira was formally appointed the guardian of Laddie. The young man went on to be a successful business man and was instrumental in bringing the first soaring and gliding contests to Elmira in the early 1930s. He passed away unexpectedly at his home in Hartford, Connecticut on February 7, 1964 at the age of 63.

Sometime after the accident, a cross was erected on the spot where Lilian died. No one is sure who created the memorial, but it may have been her husband or, more likely, her son. The inscription on the cross reads: This spot is made sacred by the death of Mrs. Sherman Voorhees by accident July 5, 1914.

Cross erected in memory of Lilian Voorhees off Comfort Hill Road, 
 photo taken March 5, 2020
In 1959, a sign was placed at the edge of the road to bring attention to and provide an explanation for the cross down below. The sign lasted about 14 years before it disappeared. In 1989, John F. McDonald, who lived next door to the monument, decided to recreate the original sign. He and his son Chad built the sign and holder, and he had Arden May of Millport paint it.

John F. and Chad McDonald beside the new sign, 
Star-Gazette, September 21, 1989
Over time, the sign weathered and became unreadable, so the town of Ashland stepped in. In 2001, a new metal sign was unveiled. You can still visit the site today on Comfort Hill Road, about halfway between Rogers and Walsh Roads, and see both the sign and the memorial cross.

Dedication of the new commemorative sign, 2001,
Photo courtesy of the Ashland Historical Society


  1. Interesting how this piece of history is still alive today. Thank you for telling it to us. How sad for that family on that fateful day just out for a drive.

  2. Thank you Erin!! The South Mountain-South Creek Project


  4. Such a sad story and yet how special these people have been over the years recreating the sign to keep her memory alive. Thank you for sharing the story of the Voorhees family.

  5. Indeed a sad story, so thoughtful to keep the sign in memory. I've always wondered if we were related since my maiden name is Voorhees.

  6. Thank you for the post an update of this incident Sherman and Lillian where my great aunt and uncle and laddie was my grandfathers cousin we were just up in Elmira at the Woodlawn cemetery on 12 320 and visited the grave sites of the other relatives