In 1905, The Worst Elevated Train Accident In New York’s History Occurred
For as long as you live September 11 will be remembered as the date of the terrorist attacks on America that brought down the World Trade Center towers. But before 2001, 9/11 marked the anniversary of the worst elevated train disaster in New York’s history. It is a disaster no one wanted to remember and was quickly forgotten except by train and New York history buffs.
The four elevated lines in Manhattan which had a glorious history are long gone, demolished between 1938 and 1955. The elevated lines began service in 1878 and until the subway was built, they provided the quickest and safest routes around New York.
But there were always fears among riders that one day an elevated train would jump the tracks.
Those fears came true on September 11, 1905.
Not surprisingly it happened at one of the more dangerous stretches of track along the elevated system.
The Sixth and Ninth Avenue Elevated lines shared their tracks above 53rd Street along Ninth Avenue. At 53rd Street the lines diverged, with the Sixth Avenue el traveling three avenues east along 53rd Street to continue its journey along Sixth Avenue.
At that Ninth Avenue junction, the towerman (also called switchman) was responsible for controlling whether trains traveling downtown would continue straight on the Ninth Avenue line or go along 53rd Street to the Sixth Avenue line.
The passengers aboard a five car “el” train that September 11 morning believed their train was going to continue straight down Ninth Avenue, as that was what the station guards at the previous station at 59th Street had told them.
If the train was proceeding down Sixth Avenue it was supposed to come to a full stop at 54th street and await a signal. The recommended maximum speed if a train was to continue down Ninth Avenue was nine miles per hour.
It was 7:05 in the morning as Paul Kelly, the motorman of the el train approached the intersection at 53rd street without stopping.
Witnesses said Kelly slowed down a bit but the train’s estimated speed was 25 miles per hour.
Instead of going straight down Ninth Avenue, the train barreled into the 53rd Street sharp curve towards Sixth Avenue.
Motorman Kelly’s first car cleared the curve, but the second car plunged over the tracks. The third car also jumped the tracks and came to rest against an apartment building forming a bridge from the car into a startled woman’s apartment as dozens of panicked survivors went into her apartment through a window. The fourth and fifth cars remained on the tracks.
From The New York Evening World of September 11, 1905:
Mrs. James G. Crowe, of No. 798 Ninth Avenue, through whose windows the passengers of the car left hanging from the “L” structure after the wreck, tells a thrilling story of the accident.
Mrs. Crowe who lives one flight up in the building at the corner of Ninth Avenue and Fifty-third Street. One of the parlor windows faces on Fifty-third Street and one on Ninth Avenue. With her three children—Edna, aged ten: Joseph, nine, and William, seven— she was asleep in her room when the crash came.
Her first idea was that the building was in flames. She leaped from her bed, cried “Fire!” “Fire!” and rushed to save her three children. Than she heard a second crash as the rear of the car struck the window of her parlor on the Fifty-third street side. Then the frightened passengers began to swarm through the window from the car, thence going to the street.
“Most of those who came through were men,” said Mrs. Crowe. “But there were a few women, and they were treated brutally by the men, who acted like maniacs. They thrust the women aside, rushed through the room and down the stairs to the street, with apparently no thought for the safety of any one but themselves. There must have been fifty or sixty of them who escaped in this manner. Just inside the two windows I had a large cabinet, which contained a number of my wedding presents, same old relies of my parents families, and other things which I prized very highly. This was hurled to the floor by the excited passengers and everything in it destroyed.
After (my) children were safe I went back and looked out of the window. On the sidewalk was a great crowd of people, and above them, just toppling from the structure, hung one of the cars. People were falling from the car to the sidewalk and I saw it start to fall.”
That second car was crowded with all seats filled and about 25 riders standing, had sustained the most damage and was where most of the fatalities and serious injuries occurred.
When the second car went off the tracks the people inside were propelled forward violently and the car dropped to the street dangling off the edge of the tracks. A split second later the third car began its descent off the tracks, the momentum flipping the second car upside down, and the truck (which holds the wheels of the train) came off and sheared off part of the second car’s roof .
The mass of men and women within were hurled forward and fought for freedom and screamed madly. Under the wrecked forward end of the second car lay the bodies of several men who had been caught in the wreck when it struck the sidewalk and splintered into hundreds of pieces.
A big hole torn in the roof of the second car exposed the carnage inside the wreck. Many of the injuries were so gruesome that some of the newspaper accounts would not go into details. Others papers did not share that discretion. According to The New York Tribune, one victim, James Cooper a 45-year-old painter had his head thrust through a glass window. His body was found in the wrecked car while his head was found up on the tracks.
The final toll was eleven passengers killed, one pedestrian crushed to death and 42 seriously injured.
When the IRT was alerted of the accident they immediately dispatched crews to clean up the debris.
After the victims were removed from the second car of the train by men with axes and crowbars, they proceeded to chop the car into little pieces so it could be carted away, which was done in less than an hour. The third car that rested against the building was hoisted back on the track and along with the remaining cars were taken back to the storage barn.
The wreck blocked the West Side elevated for almost four hours. There was no drawn out on-scene accident investigation. The tracks themselves were undamaged. Incredibly by 11:00 a.m. all vestiges of the wreck were removed and service on the lines was resumed.
The switchman at the 53rd Street junction, Cornelius Jackson, and Motorman Paul Kelly were blamed for the accident.
After Jackson was taken into custody he swore that colored disk he had put up to alert the motorman that the switch was set to divert the train to Sixth Avenue. This would have meant Kelly would have known to stop before coming to the sharp curve. Authorities examining the flag disks found they were not set as Jackson had claimed. Regardless, everyone agreed, Kelly had been speeding when approaching the junction.
And where was motorman Paul Kelly? Nowhere to be found. Kelly fled immediately after the accident and a massive search effort failed to find him. It wasn’t until 1907 when Kelly was finally apprehended in San Francisco.
In an investigation two weeks after the accident, the New York State Railroad Commissioners established that Kelly had his signal set on the train for the Ninth Avenue route and Jackson had his switches set for a Sixth Avenue train.
The investigation concluded that Kelly was mainly responsible for the accident because he ran by the Sixth Avenue signal when he was running a Ninth Avenue train and also because he did not obey the company’s rules to slow down on approaching curves.
Jackson was held responsible for contributing to the accident by setting the switches incorrectly for a Sixth Avenue train instead of a Ninth Avenue train.
At the criminal trial on March 21, 1907 Cornelius Jackson was convicted of second degree manslaughter and sentenced to five years in prison. Jackson appealed the sentence and his conviction was overturned in May 1908 by the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court who supported his contention that the signals were set towards Sixth Avenue.
After Kelly was extradited back to New York from San Francisco he was put on trial for his role in the accident. On January 24, 1908 Paul Kelly was also convicted of manslaughter in the second degree for his part in the derailment. He was sentenced to one and a half to two and a half years at Sing Sing prison.
On February 9, 1909 Kelly, along with another prisoner, escaped from a convict camp that was taking part in building a new prison at Bear Mountain, NY. Kelly had less than six months left to go to complete his sentence as he had been a model prisoner.
He was captured three days later and sent back to prison to serve the full amount of his time. Brutal treatment and bad food at the prison camp was what prompted the escape. After being captured Kelly said, “Sing-Sing is all right, but Bear Mountain- wow! Never again.”
New York City would not see another elevated train crash like this one until 18 years later in 1923 when the Brooklyn el suffered a calamity of significant proportions.
Hi-Our local UWS historic preservation group would be so interested if you ever give talks with photos of the great ones you have found in our neighborhood. Let us know if you’d be interested! Thanks for such great posts – we definitely care!
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Thank you for your information, Henry Joseph Murray was born on the 19/3/1874 in Belfast Ireland
he immigrated to the US the year is not known but he was back in Ireland as he is recorded in the 1901 Census age 28 years, shortly after returning to New York he died in the Underground Rail way I am 88 years old and I only received this Info at the start of 2018 how correct it is I do not know, He had a Brother and Sister also living in New York and a Brother in Canada, again thank you for your help.
Dear Sir/Madam My grate Uncle Henry Joseph Murray died in a underground Rail crash about 1905 in New York USA that is all I know about his death he may have been one how died in hospital do you know if there are any records and where would they be stored, hoping to find some info.
The New York City Death Index lists every person who died within New York City. You can search for yourself at the German Genealogy Group which has a direct link to the index which is here.
The NYC death index lists only two Henry Murray’s who died in 1905 one died March 31 at the age of 55 the other died Sept 3, 1905 age 65.
Since you said “about 1905”, looking at the period between 1902 – 1909 Only five people are named Henry Murray without a different middle initial. One of them was only 11 months old. So that gives you four possibilities.
The only Henry J. Murray who is listed in the New York death index died August 22, 1903 age 31 in Manhattan.
Doing a quick search I found no newspaper mention of anyone named Murray involved in any sort of a rail / subway crash or accident between 1904 and 1906 in NYC.
I think you need to have something else to go on. Approximate age? Married? Even though you are using the name you were told, is it possible he used a different name in New York?
Family history passed down through many generations usually has mistakes. What makes you believe he died in an underground rail crash in New York City?
Interesting story – if you can find out more please let us know.
I live on 51st and 9th Ave. I walk by that corner every day.
Fascinating read. Thank you!
On febr. 27th of 1905 my great-grandfather Gerard Klaassen moved from Amsterdam, Netherlands to the USA. He left his wife and 7 children behind in Amsterdam. He wanted to explore the possibilities of moving to America with the whole family. The story goes that he died that year in a train accident. Could be this one of course. There is always a possibility he met a nice American woman, but the family is sure he died in a train accident. I don’t know how I can hunt down the names of the deceased people. If some one has a suggestion for me?
Because of the length of this article the names of the dead were not included. But they deserve to be remembered. Your great-grandfather was not listed among the victims, dead or injured. Every newspaper in the rush to get breaking news into print had spelling and age mistakes for practically all the victims in their various accounts.
This list below of the 12 people killed is published here for the first time. Spelling and ages have been verified by checking the New York City Death Index.
Jacob Anspach, 34 – optician
Joseph Bach, 49 – policeman of the 27th precinct, Central Park Squad (died at Roosevelt hospital)
James Cooper, 45 – foreman painter
John Cochrane, 27 – laborer
Emma Connhaven, 21 – no occupation (died at Roosevelt hospital)
Louis Eberle, 56 – worker Mitchell-Vance Company
William Lees, 28 – electrician (died at Roosevelt hospital)
Cornelius McCarty, 40 – laborer
Theodore Morris, 35 – laborer
Solomon Neugass, 23 – chemist
Ernest Scheibl, 22 – electrician
Albert Wilsten, 39 – clerk
Interestingly Officer Bach is not in the New York City Death Index nor is he listed in the official NYPD’s list of policemen who have died in the line of duty. Checking the City Record which keeps account of the previous year’s events, it confirms that Officer Bach was killed that day. The reason Bach was not found in the Death Index it turns out is they had his name misspelled as Back. So even the city’s official records contains mistakes.
According to The New York Sun, of the 42 people injured that were attended to by physicians, “17 were badly hurt and seven of those people would probably die of their injuries.”
But newspapers as we know are not always right with their predictions of life and death. For instance William Niebuhr, 58, of 2199 8th Avenue had a skull fracture and was listed as “will die.” How much more definite can you get?!! But, Mr. Niebuhr did survive and died five years later on November 12, 1910. As far as researching those listed as seriously injured, none of those people died in the following months or the next couple of years as far as I can ascertain.
year later this reaction. Was ill. Thanks for letting me know. So now I know it was not this train accident! Apparently they never received a death certificate, only a letter from his landlord. So 3 years later my great grandmother got another child from a different man (of course), but she could not remarry and this child got the name of Gerard Klaassen. This was the only opportunity to find out what happened to him in that year. It’s the only fact we have, train accident in 1905…
My great grandmother tore up sheets for bandages for that wreck. She lived right there were the wreck happened . Told to me by my grandmother ,charlote rose.
An even worse tragedy occurred ion November 1, 1918 on what is now the Franklin Shuttle at Malbone Street (renamed Empire Blvd in Brooklyn, thanks to the horror of the accident).
During a Brooklyn BRT El strike, dispatchers were hastily engage to drive trains, which they had never done before. One such unlucky fellow was Edward Luciano.
He had no experience as a driver. But he was forced by the company to pilot a train, and careened his jam-packed rush hour 5-car Brighton-bound wooden el train at tremendous speed round a very sharp 6mph designated curve leading into the then-new Prospect Ave station.
The wooden cars literally splintered into dust. Over 100 people were killed & more mutilated. Descriptions of the Malbone Street crash are too grotesque to go into. Absolutely horrible.
Very cool article. I work on 53rd street and looked into this a while back. The NYPL has some good pictures of the accident, some of which were here. If you enlarge them and walk to that intersection the buildings are instantly recognizable by the detail adorning them. It is a little eerie to realize that these same buildings suffered such damage and were part of this tragedy over 100 years ago.
Old buildings with stories to tell. It is incredible in this era of development that anything remains from 100+ years ago that is not landmarked. Thanks for the compliment.
Great article! Thanks! When did NYC get its first steel-bodied cars?
Thank you. When the subway opened in 1904, 103 of the cars were all steel. I do not believe there were any on the El’s previous to that.
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Amazing article. My Dad was 7 months old when that happened. Born in Brooklyn.
I live a few blocks away and knew of the 9th Ave El but I did not realize the train went east on 5 3rd st. Great photos.
I appreciate your kind words. Finding all the photos and making sense of everyone’s story took a lot of research.