By the turn of the twentieth century, hundreds of steam locomotives arrived at Grand Central Station daily, at a rate of one every 45 seconds. The Park Avenue tunnel, built to remove trains from Manhattan's surface and boost public safety, was itself dangerous: dark, smoky, with poor visibility.
On January 8, 1902, an express train from White Plains missed signals and plowed into the back of a commuter train that was backed up at the tunnel. Fifteen people were killed instantly and dozens more were bloodied and burned. It was the worst train accident in New York City history.
The tabloids, new types of sensationalist newspapers, were filled with graphic descriptions of the dead and wounded as well as harrowing tales of rescue. The tragedy created public outrage and calls for an investigation.
THE NEW YORK TIMES, JAN 9, 1902
Fifteen Killed In Rear End Collision
Fifteen persons were killed and two score severely injured as a result of a rear-end collision in the Park Avenue railroad tunnel, at Fifty-sixth Street, yesterday morning at 8:20 o'clock. Unaccountable blunders of an engineer, who disregarded signals, which he says he did not see, are held to be responsible for the accident -- the worst railroad disaster that ever occurred on Manhattan Island...
...That a terrible tragedy had occurred was evident immediately. Above the hissing of escaping steam could be heard shrieks and groans of pain. There was a din of breaking glass and crackling woodwork. The boiler of the engine was inside the wrecked car. Dead and wounded were on each side and in front of this boiler, filled as it was with boiling water and steam.
The force of the engines' impact had telescoped the rear car on to the car ahead. The passengers who were sitting in the forward portion of the car, therefore, were pushed backward. Those sitting in the rear were plunged upward and forward. Only a space of some nine feet remained between the headlight of the engine and the platform of the second car...
...The damage done to those in the rear train and in the forward cars of the Danbury train was largely due to fright. A few were bruised or cut, but many fainted and suffered severe nervous shocks. As soon as could be, the men who maintained presence of mind opened the doors of the other cars and enabled the passengers to alight. The tunnel was so filled with fumes, however, that little could be seen one way or another.
THE CHICAGO DAILY TRIBUNE, JAN 9, 1902
Arrest After Gotham Wreck Where 15 Die
The disregarding of block signals by the engineer of a train was responsible for a collision in the New York Central tunnel today and resulted in the death of fifteen persons and the serious injury of sixteen others, at least two of whom are not expected to survive.
John Wischo [sic], the engineer is under arrest, bail being refused, pending full inquiry into the disaster. He is in a state of collapse, and the only explanation he can give is that he was trying to make up lost time when his engine plowed its way through the crowded passenger coach of a train which had stopped in the tunnel...
...Most of the death, injury, and damage was wrought by the engine of the White Plains train, which plunged into the rear car of the motionless train and was driven through to the middle of the car, smashing the seats and furnishings and splitting the sides as it moved forward.
The victims either were mangled in the mass of wreckage carried at the pilot, crushed in the space between boiler and car sides, or scalded by steam which came from broken pipes and cylinders.
THE BROOKLYN DAILY EAGLE, JAN 9, 1902
Railroad Men Testify About Tunnel Disaster
District Attorney Jerome continued his official investigation today into causes of the disaster in the New York Central tunnel yesterday afternoon, which caused the death of fifteen persons and injuries to at least forty. A number of employees of the railroad company was summoned by the district Attorney to appear before him.
Curious Crowd About the Scene of the Disaster
The scene of the calamity in the tunnel continues to exercise a strange fascination for the morbidly minded. All night long, although there was absolutely nothing to be seen but the bare, dark opening of the tunnel, a curious crowd lingered around the spot and discussed in awe-struck whispers the fatality which had wiped out fifteen lives and injured scores of men and women.
THE NEW YORK TIMES, JAN 10, 1902
Suburban Towns Roused
Indignation Meeting Called in New Rochelle
This stricken city, although still in the shadow of grief, has to-day recovered somewhat from the paralyzing shock of the railway tunnel disaster in New York, and is awakening to a sense of intense indignation. As slowly the harvest of death reaped in the hole under the New York streets is being garnered in the homes of New Rochelle, the townsmen of the dead and the maimed are beginning to ask each other not how this thing occurred, but why...
...Business in this city, which was suddenly paralyzed yesterday upon receipt of the story of death and mutilation, has not yet been resumed to any extent. It will not be until the undertakers' wagons cease their trips from the little railway station. The telegraphic congestion at the station has been relieved. An army of wives and sisters and parents of those who were injured in the wreck are by this time in New York, scattered about the various hospitals, watching by the bedside of their loved ones, so that to-day the telegraph gave way in importance to baggage master, whose duty it was to receive the dead...
...At a meeting of the Taxpayers' Alliance of the Borough of the Bronx, held on Wednesday evening, resolutions were unanimously adopted expressing indignation that the accident in the Park Avenue tunnel should have been possible, and calling upon the officials of the State and city to see to it that those responsible for the disaster be punished and that the railroad company be compelled to take steps to improve their terminal facilities.
My American Experience
The U.S. has dozens of impressive, important, and iconic structures. Which ones have you been to? Which has had the biggest impact on its local community and on the country? Which one is your favorite?