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.”
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.