A Fateful Date: The 1905 New York City (USA) Train Derailment

Max S
9 min readSep 17, 2023

Background

New York City (commonly shortened to NYC) is a city of 8.8 million people (as of 2020) on the northeastern coast of the United States of America, located in the state of New York 130km/81mi northeast of Philadelphia (Pennsylvania) and 107km/66mi southwest of New Haven in the state of Connecticut (both measurements in linear distance).

The location of New York City in the northeast of the USA.

The city, especially the tightly packed Manhattan borough (located on an Island of the same name in the center of the sprawling city), is criss-crossed by an expansive rapid transit system, nowadays mostly consisting of below-ground subway trains. The coverage of the underground rail lines is complemented by several elevated rail lines running on bridges above roads. Over time several elevated lines have come and gone, a major line among the latter group was the IRT Ninth Avenue Line, which opened as NYC’s first elevated rail line in 1868, making it over 30 years older than the first underground subway line. The line was expanded to its final route/length by 1879, reaching from today’s Battery Park at the southern end of the Island all the way the up the Island’s western side to Harlem River in the north, at a location nowadays called the Polo Grounds.

The location of the accident seen from above today. The elevated line, which followed the north-south road the marker is positioned on, no longer exists. The train involved in the accident approached from the north (top of the image).

After originally being served by trains pulled with steam locomotives the line was electrified in 1903, the same year it was leased to the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT) for 999 years (no, that is not a typo). The line ran at heights of up to 19m/63ft above street level in order to clear, traffic, trams and smaller buildings, and had some stations fitted with elevators to let passengers more conveniently reach the platforms.

An undated photo showing the IRT Ninth Avenue Line around the turn of the century. The pictured curve is a higher section than the site of the accident, but it gives an idea of the elevated line’s look and integration.

The Train Involved

By 1905 the line, like all IRT elevated lines, was operated with so-called Manhattan El trains. These electric multiple units (EMUs) consisted of four-axle passenger cars originally used for the locomotive-pulled trains, which had been converted to EMUs when the line was electrified via the installation of a third rail. Third rail electrification, in simplified terms, can be compared to the basic principle of slot cars, with a separate rail running along the tracks carrying a high current which is picked up by the trains. The electrification allowed the retirement of the steam locomotives from regular service, making operations cheaper, cleaner and quieter. The cars were different types constructed between the 1890s and 1905, with their unique feature being exposed platforms at both ends of the car from where passengers entered and left the train at the station. Employees rode along on these platforms to manually open and close the doors at each station and control passenger movement. The trains were built mostly of wood, with some having steel frames beneath the all-wood bodies, due to being based of normal passenger train cars.

Unfortunately I was unable to find specific sizes/weights for the cars. I chose to still write this piece, hoping you don’t mind that the usually included information is missing.

A photo of a Manhattan El-car identical with those involved in the accident, taken in 1930.

The Accident

Back in 1905 the Ninth and Sixth Avenue elevated train lines shared the same track above West 53rd Street, with a set of points allowing access into a sharp curve where the Sixth Avenue trains departed from the shared track to the west. The points were operated by an employee referred to as the Towerman from a small tower (hence the name) next to the tracks ahead of the points. Trains heading downtown (south), which gave them the option to use the points, carried a sign on the front end that indicated whether they were to enter the turn or proceed straight towards 50th Street station (note that the street-layout in 2023 appears to differ from that in 1905, with the numbering not quite lining up). Trains back then did not have a destination indicator on the front end like modern subway trains do, so these signs were just about the only way to tell the trains apart from the outside. The straight-line trains had a speed limit of 48kph/30mph while the IRT mandated a 14kph/9mph speed limit for trains using the curve.

On the 11th of September 1905 a Sixth Avenue train was heading down the shared elevated track during rush hour, closely followed by a five-car Ninth Avenue train under the command of Mister Kelly. The Ninth Avenue Train passed the Towerman’s position, which was manned by Mister Jackson, at 7:04am, with Mister Kelly expecting to continue straight ahead. Instead the train was suddenly directed into the curve, while travelling way too fast to make it through. Upon realizing that his train was headed into the curve Mister Kelly immediately triggered an emergency stop, but, while his leading car passed through the turn, the second car derailed and went off the edge of the bridge, crashing into the road below upside down. The wooden body began to disintegrate as soon as the train went off the edge, opening up the roof of the train car as it struck the ground and crushing the leading end into the road below. The back of the train car got caught on the edge of the bridge*, where the damaged third rail sparked an electrical fire. The third car went mostly off the bridge too, ending up lodged against a residential balcony on the first floor of an adjacent building. Tragically its leading bogie and motors fell off the car, breaking through the severely damaged second car below and fatally striking passengers inside. The rest of the train remained on the bridge after derailing. 13 people aboard the second car died, while 48 passengers aboard the train were injured, with a police officer who happened to be standing near the elevated track being injured by falling debris.

*Some sources claim that the second car spun 180° after derailing and struck the ground with its back end, having the leading end caught on the edge of the bridge.

Aftermath

Some of the passengers aboard car 3 managed to climb down the length of their car and onto the resident’s balcony their car had hit, while those who had survived in car 2 had to wait for responders to bring ladders as the lower end’s doors had been crushed and the upper ones were in the vicinity of the fire and damaged high voltage third rail.

The investigators were pretty confident to know the cause from the start, in their eyes Mister Kelly had been driving his train recklessly and caused the accident by negligently maintaining excessive speed. Their report, which was published a full 12 days after the accident (an insanely rapid turnaround-time unheard of nowadays), placed most of the blame on Mister Kelly’s speeding, while Mister Jackson was criticized for allegedly having set the points for the preceding Sixth Avenue train and then abandoning his post for unknown reasons. During initial interrogation Kelly claimed that his train had displayed the correct signage for a train not using the curve, while Jackson claimed the opposite. The train’s conductor, who survived the accident, had been responsible for the sign and backed Kelly’s statement. Furthermore, the IRT also voiced support of their driver, reasoning that every station’s signalman so far had identified the train as being a Ninth Avenue train which meant it wouldn’t use the curve.

Another view of the wreckage from ground level, showing ladders being placed up against the inverted car.

By the 2nd of October both Kelly and Jackson were declared guilty by a jury, who argued that, even if the signage was right and the points were set incorrectly Kelly should have seen that the signal ahead of the points was displaying “turn” rather than “straight”. Kelly wasn’t around to witness this decision as he went missing shortly after the accident, with authorities unable to figure out his whereabouts. A coworker came forward claiming that he had talked to Kelly shortly after the accident, where Kelly had told him that Jackson was “trying to do him” (meaning that Jackson was supposedly sabotaging Kelly), explaining that Jackson had previously purposely operated signals late so that Kelly had had to stop and sometimes even reverse trains, causing backups and delays which got him in trouble with his employer.

Continuing on, the alleged discussion between the two drivers included Kelly explaining that he had been going as fast as he had been, too fast to stop at the signal if it changed unexpectedly, because he had been running late and had heard the conductor call out 42nd street as the next stop from 59th street, giving a long, clear straight to make up lost time. While Kelly didn’t breach the line’s speed limit it did leave him too fast to stop when the points and signal at 9th Avenue were unexpectedly set to “turn”.

A photo taken from an adjacent building’s fire escape platform, showing the train cars hang off the bridge.

Jackson was convicted of second degree manslaughter a few months after the accident, but his conviction was later overturned and he was set free. Kelly was eventually spotted and subsequently arrested in San Francisco in June 1907, almost 2 years after the accident and on the opposite side of the country. He was taken back to New York and stood trial, being sentenced to 2.5 years in prison for second degree manslaughter while he insisted that he was innocent, before being incarcerated at Sing Sing Correctional Facility a few kilometers north of NYC. The bad food and violent treatment he received from guards there led to him escaping along with a fellow inmate in February 1909 while being used as construction labor for a new prison nearby, despite just six months remaining of his sentence. The escape, which puzzled authorities as Kelly had been a “model inmate” with perfect behavior, ended when Kelly refused to abandon the other inmate when the latter fell ill. The two were recaptured without resistance and Kelly served the rest of his sentence. Nothing is publicly known about his life after serving his sentence.

Construction work underway to remodel the site of the accident in 1915.

The site of the accident was remodelled in 1915 to reduce the danger posed by the sharp turn, and the signal’s position was allegedly moved north to put more distance between it and the points. A big factor in the outcome of the accident had been the mostly-to-entirely wooden construction of the train cars, which caused them to break apart relatively easily, losing survival space. Despite this fact cars with wooden bodies would remain in regular service with US railways for several more decades, with some seeing the end of World War 2. In fact, construction of wooden bodied cars didn’t stop until several years after the accident. Today 4 Manhattan El-type cars remain in museums, a fifth had been preserved at the Knox & Kane Railroad in Pennsylvania but was destroyed in an infuriating arson attack in 2008 which destroyed a building and various rolling stock belonging to the already struggling railway.

The IRT Ninth Avenue Line was retired and demolished between June 1940 and August 1958, when the last section’s final days as a shuttle to the New York Giants’ baseball stadium ran out once the team relocated. Today the IND Eighth Avenue Line, which opened in 1933 and runs underground, essentially replaces the Ninth Avenue Line’s services. The New York City Subway has been using exclusively metal-body cars (with metal frames) for the last several decades, offering much better crash protection than wooden bodies (or frames). Furthermore, signaling has been automated for decades, removing the risk of human error (or malice, if Kelly’s version of events is to be believed).

A surviving, repainted Manhattan El-type car identical with those involved in the accident (left) and one of the new R211 subway trains introduced in 2022 (right).

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A kind reader is posting the installments on reddit for me, I cannot interact with you there but I will read the feedback and corrections. You can find the post right here.

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Max S

Train crash reports and analysis, published weekly.