The New York Central Railroad’s 1907 Woodlawn Crash

In the midst of the national political debate over railroad freight rates of 1907, the New York Central Railroad and William C. Brown, its Senior Vice President and my great-great uncle, had to confront the tragic human, legal, financial, political and public relations problems presented by the February 16, 1907, crash of one of its trains in the Woodlawn section of the Bronx. The train with one of the new type of engines (electrical) left the tracks, killing 24 people and injuring another 143.[1]

Remember that this occurred during the construction of the Grand Central Terminal in midtown Manhattan, which would require the replacement of steam-powered locomotives with electric-powered ones that previously had not been designed, manufactured and used. [2]

The Central’s Chief Engineer, William J. Wilgus, was in charge of designing the new electric engines, and General Electric Company was manufacturing them. The initial test run in September 1906 had been successful.

If the new engines were outlawed, the Railroad faced financial ruin. If the Railroad were deemed to be negligent in any way, that too presented many problems. For example, an assistant district attorney called for an investigation of the Central’s executives for possible indictment for manslaughter.[3]

Dr. Kurt C. Schlichting’s Hypotheses Regarding the Crash

Some of the documents about the Crash have been analyzed by Dr. Kurt C. Schlichting, the holder of the E. Gerald Corrigan Endowed Chair in the Humanities and Social Sciences and a professor of sociology and anthropology at Fairfield University (Fairfield, CT). Here are his conclusions from that investigation:[4]

  • In testimony before the New York State Railroad Commission, the Central’s President, William H. Newman, and Senior Vice President, William Carlos Brown, testified that the fault was Wilgus’ design of the engines.
  • Wilgus, however, proud of his design work and his professional reputation, strenuously disagreed with this assessment. Therefore, Wilgus did his own investigation and concluded that the cause of the wreck was a track defect at the point of the wreck and a widening (or “nosing”) of the track due to the heavier weight of the electric engines. This would make the Central’s Operating Division liable.
  • Wilgus thought Newman and Brown agreed with him, but Brown in an April 1907 memo told Wilgus that the engine design by Wilgus was flawed and thus the cause of the wreck.
  • In response Wilgus prepared an April 9th detailed report defending the design and instead arguing that the cause was a spreading of the track (nosing) due to the extra weight of the engine. This was seen as a “time bomb” for the Central and its top executives for liability for putting the new engine into service without adequate testing and for possible perjury in their testimony to the Commission.
  • On April 12th, the Central’s vice president and chief general counsel, Ira Place, visited Wilgus and explained how his memo would damage the Railroad and that Newman and Brown could go to jail if the report were made public. Therefore, Place instructed Wilgus to burn the report, and Wilgus agreed to do so.
  • The Central’s lawyer delivered the same message to Newman and Brown, and they obeyed the instruction and destroyed the report.
  • Under the direction of Brown, the Railroad then proceeded to made significant changes to the design of the engines without Wilgus’ knowledge and consent. Wilgus felt double-crossed and told the Central’s lawyer that he had re-created the report.
  • Wilgus put a copy of the re-created report in a box of records given to the New York Public Library with instructions that it was not to be opened without his permission until after his death.
  • This collection of papers also included testimonial letters about Wilgus from J. P. Morgan, William K. Vanderbilt, Ira Place and W.C. Brown. A letter by Brown before the crash, for example, stated, “The great work undertaken and practically completed by you, of changing the power within the so-called electric zone and the reconstruction of Grand Central Station, was the most stupendous work of engineering I have ever known; and it has gone forward practically without a halt, certainly without a failure in any essential feature.”
  • Wilgus resigned from the Railroad on September 20, 1907.
  • No criminal charges were ever brought against the Railroad or any of its executives regarding the Woodlawn Wreck.

 Reaction to Schlichting’s Analysis

I have not seen or reviewed the documents that Dr. Schlichting has and I am not an engineer. Thus, I am not in a position, as Mr. Brown’s descendant, to refute the above analysis. But I do have the following points:

  1. Wilgus was out to protect his professional reputation as an engineer and thus has an interest in casting blame elsewhere. Moreover, he was never subjected to cross-examination on his criticisms of Mr. Brown and the others.
  2. According to Schlichting, Wilgus went to great pains in designing and testing the new engine. A good argument can be made that this was reasonable care, not negligence.
  3. Yet after the Crash, the railroad at the direction of Mr. Brown and without Wilgus’ participation successfully redesigned the engine and eliminated the problem. (Presumably this involved reducing the weight of the engine.) Thus, Wilgus was not essential to designing the engine, and the redesign suggests that he had not done all that he could have done on the initial design.
  4. Brown and the other railroad officials had not had an opportunity to defend themselves against these charges.

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[1] E.g., ONLY SECOND TRIP OF DOOMED TRAIN; Passengers Were Frightened at Speed Made Early in the Run. “CRACKED LIKE A WHIP,” Card Playing Commuters Soon Gave Up Their Games in the Swaying Cars, N.Y. Times (Feb. 16, 1907); CENTRAL WRECK; EIGHTEEN DEAD; New Electric Train Leaves the Tracks in the Bronx. MORE THAN 40 INJURED Passengers Ground to Death as Upset Cars Dragged Along the Ties. LAID TO OVERSPEEDING Bodies Chopped Out of the Wreckage—Motor Cars Never Left Rails. ENGINEER IS ARRESTED. Police Find Him Early This Morning—The Coroner Already Investigating, N.Y. Times (Feb. 16, 1907); NEWMAN QUIZZED AT WRECK INQUIRY; President Tells of Central’s Methods at the State Commission Hearing. RELIES ON MEN BELOW Details of Operation Are Left to Heads of Departments, President Declares, N.Y. Times (Feb. 27, 1907); WARNING WAS GIVEN BEFORE FATAL WRECK, N.Y. Times (Mar. 6, 1907); Weak Track Caused Wreck, N.Y. Times (May 8, 1907) (N.Y. Board of Railroad Commissioners conclusion)l PBS, The Woodlawn Crash, 1907.

[2] See Grand Central Terminal’s Centennial, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 2, 2013); Another Report on Grand Central Terminal’s Centennial, dwkcommentaries.com (April 7, 2014); Sam Roberts, Grand Central: How a Train Station Transformed America at 110 (Grand Central Pub; New York 2013).

[3] In early March 1907 the New York Central was held “culpably negligent” by the Coroner’s jury  and the Coroner held the company, its President Newman and its Board of Directors for the grand Jury. (Company Blamed for Bronx Wreck, N.Y. Times ( Mar. 5, 1907). Later that month the New York Central and two lower-level officials were indicted for manslaughter in the second degree by a New York State grand jury. (Central Indicted for Manslaughter, N.Y. Times (March 28, 1907).)

[4] Kurt C. Schlichting, Grand Central Terminal: Railroads, Engineering and Architecture in New York City at 82-106 (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press; Baltimore, MD; 2001); Kurt C. Schlichting, William J. Wilgus and the planning of modern Manhattan at 63-66 (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press; Baltimore, MD; 2012). Dr. Schlichting based his conclusions on documents in Box 7 of the Wilgus Papers at the New York Public Library.

 

 

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dwkcommentaries

As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

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