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.

 

 

William Carlos Brown’s New York Central Railroad Career

 

W. C. Brown
W. C. Brown

 

After his successful 19th century career with railroads in the Midwest, in 1902 my great-great-uncle, William Carlos (or W.C.) Brown, became the Vice President in charge of the transportation, engineering, mechanical and purchasing departments of the New York Central Railroad, which as described in a prior post was one of the most powerful corporations in the country.

Brown’s joining the Central in 1902 prompted a letter writer to the New York Times to state that W.C. “has made a careful study of [railroad] safety appliances, and he is in large part responsible for the adoption of the operating rules now in force on [U.S. railroads]. He was a member of the first Committee on Safety Appliances and Train Rules of the American Railway Association.” In addition, according to this writer, Brown had a “strong and vigorous personality and he has a faculty of making friends with all of his employees.”

Brown was a Vice President until 1906, when he was promoted to the position of the Senior Vice President. He held this position until 1909 when he was appointed to be the Central’s President, Director and member of its Executive Committee. Effective December 31, 1913, he retired from the Central.

When Brown assumed the Central’s presidency in 1909, a trade journal said W.C. was “a studious man, clear-headed, with retentive memory” and “an accurate judge of men and subjects.”

The New York Times added that Brown was “one of the most popular railroad officials” in the U.S. and had “an extraordinary forcefulness and energy. He has a faculty of disposing of things in the shortest possible span of time, and an equally strong one for analyzing propositions down to the backbone. He talks quickly, energetically, and very clearly. Among his subordinates and associates he is immensely popular, and the joy over his promotion is heartfelt and unaffected.” He also was described as “courteous and modest . . . [a] moderate disciplinarian . . . kind-hearted and considerate . . . [and] not as uncompromising as many of his contemporaries [toward labor unions].”

Another journalist in 1909 said Brown “knows what the duty is of every one of his 150,000 men in the system.” The National Cyclopedia of American Biography in its 1910 edition stated that Brown was then “probably one of the best posted and most able and efficient railroad men in the [U.S.] He is firm and determined . . . . His career affords a splendid example of accomplishments due to untiring industry, perseverance, and fidelity to one’s duties.”

Brown himself was quoted in the New York Times at the time of his promotion to President of the Central. He said, “ In the United States, it is the workingman who, even though he starts at the bottom, ends in the important posts at the top of our railroads and our great industrial enterprises. The day of favoritism and family has departed. I believe that plain sticking to it is a good rule for every workingman who is earnest in his ambition. I believe, too, it may not be for his best welfare for any worker to set for himself . . . a definite goal.”

For another publication, Brown continued on this theme. He said the most important factor his advancement was, “Just sticking to it and making a business of my business, filling every job I got as well as I knew how. . . . [I]t is more or less a mistake to preach to young men that they should fix for themselves a specific goal, and strive toward it . . . . If a fellow sets out with that idea, he is apt to become an office politician, and he wastes more time figuring out how he is going to get the step over somebody else than he expends in attending to the business in hand. The thing he has to do is bend every energy . . . to doing today, as well as it can be done, what he has to do. The man who does that does not need to worry about promotion . . . . Promotion will look for him.”

Here are some of the significant events at the Railroad in which he was involved during his 12 years at the Central and which have been or will be covered in other posts:

  • the demolition of the old Grand Central Terminal and the construction of the new Terminal at 42nd Street and Park Avenue in Manhattan;[1]
  • the related electrification of the trains coming into and going out of that Terminal;
  • the Woodlawn Crash, February 16, 1907, when a Central train with a new electric engine flew off the tracks, instantly killing 20 people and injuring more than 150, some seriously;
  • the financial panic of 1907;
  • the national political issue of whether and how the federal government should regulate railroads, especially their freight rates; and
  • other public issues, including promotion of agriculture.

In these and other issues over those 12 years, Brown, of course, was not a sole actor. Just look at the members of the Railroad’s Board of Directors, 1909-1913, whom we reviewed in an earlier post and with whom Brown worked.

During this time at the Central, Brown and his family lived in Manhattan at 135 Central Park West overlooking Central Park. But every summer he and his family returned to Iowa to visit his parents and friends and his farms. These visits along with other ways he honored his parents will be discussed in a subsequent post.

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[1] A prior post discussed the Terminal on its centennial in 2013 with other details provided in another post.