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.

================================================

[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.

 

 

The New York Central Railroad at Start of the 20th Century

New_York_Central_Herald

 At the start of the 20th century the New York Central Railroad was one of the most important and powerful railroads in the U.S., and because of the importance of railroading at the time, it was one of the country’s most powerful corporations. Its lines stretched from Boston in the east to Chicago and St. Louis in the west and from New York City in the south to the Canadian border in the north.

20th Century Limited
20th Century Limited

Starting in 1902, its flagship operation was the luxurious first-class Twentieth Century Limited, operating on a fast schedule between New York’s Grand Central Terminal and Chicago’s LaSalle Street Station. Here are an image of an early Twentieth Century Limited train and a map of the Central’s lines in 1914.

 

 rail.str.0249.01        

 The Central’s Board of Directors

From its headquarters in New York City, the Central’s board of directors during the first decade of the century included men (all white and no women, sorry) who were wealthy and powerful in their own right and who are important in American history. Here are profiles of some of these figures.

William K. Vanderbilt
William K. Vanderbilt

William K. Vanderbilt, a grandson of Cornelius “Commodore Vanderbilt, [1] had been active in the day-to-day operations of the Central from 1863 until 1903. He was a yachtsman who won the America’s Cup in 1895, an owner of many race horses, an active supporter of the Metropolitan Opera and an owner of fine paintings which he eventually bequeathed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His mansion on Fifth Avenue  was regarded as one of Manhattan’s most magnificent residences. When he died in 1920 his estate publicly was estimated at $100 million.

Frederick K. Vanderbilt was another grandson of the Commodore who also had been active in the Central.

Hamlton McKown Twombly
Hamlton McKown Twombly

 

Hamilton McKown Twombly was married to the Commodore’s granddaughter, Florence Adele Vanderbilt, and through wise investment of her inheritance and his own money became very wealthy.

 

 

 

Chauncey Depew
Chauncey Depew

Chauncey M. Depew was the Vanderbilts’ lawyer, a “glib raconteur, master of ceremonies and after-dinner speaker” who used his legal talents in “an essentially public relations role for the [Central] and other Vanderbilt properties.”

Depew also was a prominent Republican Party politician. He was one of the organizers of the Party in 1858; a delegate to every Party convention from 1860 to 1920; a member of the New York legislature, 1861-62; New York’s Secretary of State, 1864-65; a candidate for the Party’s presidential nomination in 1888; President Harrison’s choice for U.S. Secretary of State, which Depew declined; and a U.S. Senator from New York, 1899-1911 (while he was a Director of the Central). During the Civil War he was a confidant of President Lincoln, which lead to Depew’s being New York’s official escort for President Lincoln’s funeral train on its way to Illinois.

In 1866 Depew as the principal speaker at the dedication of the Statue of Liberty said,“We dedicate this statue to the friendship of nations and the peace of the world. The spirit of liberty embraces all races in common; it voices in all languages the same needs and aspirations. The full power of its expansive and progressive influence cannot be reached until wars cease, armies are disbanded, and international disputes are settled by lawful tribunals and the principles of justice. Then the people of every nation, secure from invasion and free from the burden and menace of great armaments, can calmly and dispassionately promote their own happiness and prosperity.” This sounds like the post-World War II Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

 

J. P. Morgan
J. P. Morgan

 

John Pierpont (“J.P.”) Morgan, of course, was the famous Wall Street financier of the robber barons in the late 19th century. He reorganized major industrial companies and railroads and was one of the most powerful figures in railroading. J.P. also helped to halt financial panics in 1893 and 1907.

 

 

George S. Bowdoin was a wealthy partner of J. P. Morgan.[2]

William Rockefeller
William Rockefeller

 

William Rockefeller with his older brother, John D. Rockefeller, established and was active in the Standard Oil Company. William also was part of the “Standard Oil Gang” that engaged in various financial promotions. William was a jovial man who liked good living with little taste for philanthropy.

 

George F. Baker
George F. Baker

 

George F. Baker was another Wall Street financier, an ally of the Rockefellers and a founder of the First National Bank of New York. During the Civil War he was consulted by members of the Lincoln Cabinet on financial matters. He endowed the Harvard Business School and made large contributions to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Red Cross.[3]

 

 

 

James Stillman
James Stillman

James Stillman was the President of the National City Bank of New York City (now known as Citibank), and his two daughters married sons of William Rockefeller. Stillman was considered to be one of the 100 wealthiest Americans of his time.

Edward H. Harriman
Edward H. Harriman

 

Edward H. Harriman was the President of the Union Pacific Railroad and an ally of William Rockefeller and James Stillman.[4]

 

 

Marvin Hughitt
Marvin Hughitt

 

Marvin Hughitt was the President of the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad.

Lewis Cass Ledyard
Lewis Cass Ledyard

 

Lewis Cass Ledyard, a Wall Street lawyer, co-founder of the law firm of Carter, Ledyard & Milburn and counsel for the New York Stock Exchange and noted corporations. Ledyard was the executor of the J.P. Morgan estate.

 

Darius O. Mills
Darius O. Mills

 

Darius O. Mills was a Gold Rush adventurer who turned to finance and banking. For a time he was the wealthiest person in California.

William H. Newman was the Central’s President at the start of the 20th century until he was succeeded by W. C. Brown.  Newman was from Virginia and started his railroad career at age 23 in 1869 as a station agent to become in 1898 the president of two Central subsidiaries–the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern and the Lake Erie & Western Railroads.

Conclusion

This was the world that in 1902 welcomed into its senior executive ranks William Carlos Brown, a man of modest background from the State of Iowa.

——————————————-

[1] “Commodore” Vanderbilt through a shipping fortune and stock manipulations gained control of the Central in the 1860’s. His grand ball in 1883 is often seen as the epitome of the gilded age. The Commodore gave $1 million to Tennessee’s Central University in exchange for its being renamed as Vanderbilt University. A contemporary descendant of the “Commodore” is CNN’s Anderson Cooper.

[2] One of George S. Bowdoin’s ancestors, James Bowdoin, was a Governor of Massachusetts, and the latter’s son, James Bowdoin III, was an early benefactor of Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. The College was chartered in 1794 by Massachusetts Governor Samuel Adams when Maine was part of Massachusetts and was named for Governor Bowdoin.

[3] Baker’s son, George F. Baker, Jr., was another Wall Street financier whose trust established a college scholarship program, of which I was a beneficiary as a George F. Baker Scholar at Grinnell College.

[4] Edward Harriman’s son, W. Averell Harriman (1891 – 1986), was a special envoy to Europe for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, U.S. Secretary of Commerce under President Truman, Governor of New York and U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union and later to Great Britain. He was a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1952, and again in 1956, but lost to Adlai Stevenson both times.