Street car plunge
‘WORST TRAGEDY IN THE HISTORY OF THE CITY’
(And the one Boston completely forgot)
The faint glow of dusk had given way to the deep black of night by the time the streetcar clattered up Summer Street at 5:25, its sole headlight and the scattered street lamps waging a losing battle against the darkness.
On an unusually warm fall evening — Tuesday, Nov. 7, 1916, election night — the rush-hour ride home was something to endure, stuffy and loud: nearly 70 commuters packed into a rumbling shoebox with seats for 34, the straphangers squeezed by knees and toes on all sides.
The crush of riders spilled out onto the closet-sized platforms on both ends, flanking the motorman in front and hanging off the back stairs, as the inbound car crested the hill approaching Fort Point Channel, in the industrial end of South Boston.
Many were bound for South Station, and still more planned to transfer at Washington Street, but until then it was an assault on the senses, especially the ears: the clang and rattle of steel wheels atop steel rails atop paving stones; the motorman hollering out the stops (“E Street! . . . . D Street!”), followed by the cry of the brakes; the steady clang of the gong to warn horses, pedestrians, and the occasional automobile, to clear the way; the ka-ching of the fare register mounted overhead.
And so they stared blankly or thought of other things — supper waiting on the table; a spouse in the hospital; the fate of the Red Sox, fresh off their second straight “World’s Series” championship but soon to be sold — or strained to talk to co-workers or strangers about the election.
The race for the White House was on everyone’s mind, with President Woodrow Wilson and Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes battling to the wire amid unrest on the Mexican border and a war raging in Europe. Bookmakers in Boston had given Hughes 10 to 8 odds, but the line was shifting toward the president when the polls closed at 4 p.m.
Which is why few inside the streetcar gave much thought to the final screech of the brakes or the thump that came with it. Trolleys were always whining, and sometimes they hit things — like a wayward wagon, or a tip-cart stuck in the tracks — and kept right on going.
Except suddenly there was commotion and muffled cries at both ends. The car had smashed through the warning gates of the open Summer Street drawbridge and was skidding toward the edge.
Screeching, sliding, it seemed to slow just in time, pausing at the brink, the front end dangling above the water, the rear wheels holding onto the tracks.
The car rocked; it teetered for a second, for two. The lights cut out — the trolley pole slipped off the overhead wire — but still it wasn’t clear to everyone inside what was happening.
Then wood splintered, metal popped. The trolley snapped free, plunging forward, abandoning the rear wheels on the tracks. Someone shrieked — “My God! We’re going over!” — and the passengers tumbled, screaming and reaching out for one another as the streetcar fell.
Dark green with white trim, Car 393 had pulled out of the P Street barn in South Boston 12 minutes earlier, an extra car added to the schedule so the Boston Elevated Railway Co. could move more commuters at rush hour. Motorman Gerald Walsh and conductor George McKeon were on board, both “spare men,” assigned to plug gaps in the schedule.
They had not worked together, and neither had worked this specific route before among the 486 miles of trolley track operated by the private company known as the El. Still, both men — blue-eyed Irishmen in their 20s — lived in the neighborhood and knew the turf.
Walsh, one of 10 children, had grown up on a farm outside Skibbereen before setting sail the previous year on the SS St. Louis, enduring nine days in steerage to join a handful of siblings already in Boston. Just five months earlier, he had been hired by the Elevated as a motorman, following the lead of his twin brother. After two early accidents, he was feeling steadier now at the controls.
McKeon had been born here, his grandparents on both sides refugees from the Great Famine of the 1840s. He had worked at a dry goods store until getting hired by the Elevated the year before.
They were workaday men assigned a workaday car. Its narrow passenger compartment was 25 feet long, not counting small platforms on either end. Inside, cushioned benches ran beneath the rows of windows and advertisements, which beckoned riders to try Perfection Cigarettes (“Just Naturally Good”) or Sloan’s Liniment (“Kills Pain”) and to read Anthony Arnoux’s war dispatches in the Boston Journal, one of the city’s 10 dailies.
The car was 16 years old, designed for electricity and not a retrofitted open-air horsecar from the 1870s, but it was showing its age just the same. To protect the motorman from weather and debris, the open platforms had been enclosed a decade earlier with windows and folding doors. But the car still had a gooseneck handbrake that had to be cranked, not the fast-acting air brakes of the newer trolleys in the fleet.
At 5:13, Walsh nosed it down P Street and along a few residential blocks, while McKeon braced for the East First Street factory crowds that would pile on faster than he could collect fares and pull the cord on the overhead register.
Small workshops and sprawling factories lined East First, backing out onto the wharves of the Reserved Channel. The biggest was Walworth Manufacturing, the firm that had put the first radiators in the White House and dominated the plumbing-supply business.
Two dozen Walworth workers rushed on board, all of them men and nearly all immigrants banging out a living in Boston with their hands, drawn to an industrial city that had doubled in population over the last 30 years.
Some of them retained an air of the old country, like 51-year-old Antonio Campagnoni, a 5-foot-3 brass worker with mournful eyes and a handlebar mustache. Others could scarcely picture the villages their families had left behind, like Pasquale Iannessa, a 17-year-old who went by Patsy. With his broad nose and full cheeks, he looked like a shorter Babe Ruth, the young ace of the Red Sox pitching staff.
Patsy scrambled on with two of his best friends, brothers Vincenzo and Biagio Macaluso, 18 and 19, clean-shaven and handsome, more American by the year, dressing on the weekend in club collars and straw boaters. They went by Jimmie and Biggi now, sometimes telling people their last name was Ross.
The three had lived as kids in the same cold-water tenement on Charter Street in the North End, amid the laundry-draped fire escapes and lovingly tended rooftop gardens, before the Iannessas moved around the corner and the Macalusos to East Boston. Biggi and Jimmie’s older brother John — Rosario Macaluso by birth — was supposed to get on the trolley, too, but he got buttonholed by a friend and was stuck in back of the pack. As 393 rolled on, he called to his brothers, saying he would meet them at home.
At the corner where L Street met Summer, the car collected workers from the smoke-belching power plants of the Elevated and the Edison Co., neighboring behemoths that generated electricity for streetcars and streetlights, and from smaller shops like Stetson Coal, Condit Electrical Manufacturing, and J.W. Moore Machine, makers of gauges, jigs, and fixtures.
They included Norris Curtis, a 30-year-old Moore machinist looking forward to his upcoming wedding to a Jamaica Plain typist, and Elsie Wood, a 19-year-old Condit stenographer who turned heads as the only woman on the car, with her blond hair and gold bracelet.
By then the car was full, every seat, every strap. Walsh crossed the first drawbridge without incident, over the Reserved Channel, where the Army was building a supply base on the far side. There were still 1½ miles to go, a straight shot up Summer to Washington, the beating heart of commerce in Boston. Ahead of him lay the rapidly developing South Boston Flats, an expanse of water and marsh that had been filled in since the Civil War with freight yards, factories, and warehouses, all of them with workers waiting to go home.
In the distance, a tugboat whistled.
That familiar sound — two long blasts, two short — stirred the men inside the drawtender’s house on the Summer Street Bridge, a Tudor cottage that belied the modern mechanisms of the drawbridge itself; instead of lifting up, motorized sections of the bridge retracted at angles to each side, clearing a passage. Down below, the tug William G. Williams waited to tow a barge full of raw sugar up the channel to the big refinery beside South Bay, near the Gillette safety-razor plant.
Drawtender Timothy Shea had been working the bridge almost since it built in 1899, thousands of routine draw openings and checkers games punctuated by occasional excitement. He went to the control room and sent his assistants out to the deck, one to each end, to close the gates and hang red kerosene lanterns to warn oncoming traffic. A few hundred yards south, Shea could see the headlamp of a streetcar.
Sticking to his schedule, Gerald Walsh was motoring that car at a brisk 10 to 15 miles an hour, McKeon in back doing his best to change dimes and collect nickels, more than 40 people aboard now. They stopped at the C Street viaduct and 20 more pressed on, half from the Boston branch of telephone manufacturer Western Electric and half from the new Fish Pier nearby, a half-million-square-foot marvel with electric icemakers and concrete floors.
Amid the cutters and packers, the group included buttoned-up salesmen as well as 20-year-old bookkeeper Lillian Frank, whose struggling parents had given her up to relatives as a girl, and who was busy on weekends now competing in gymnastics and planning dances at the Hebrew Y. Also coming aboard was Thomas Price, a window-washer and handyman popular along the pier. The Kentuckian stood out less for his drawl than for being one of 15,000 black residents in a city of 750,000, part of a wave of migrants settling in the South End.
Walsh nudged the controller handle, and the car regained speed — 5, 10, 15 miles an hour, it was hard to say; inside, Patsy turned to Biggi and mentioned that they seemed to be going faster than usual.
From inside the car, a gentleman offered Frank a seat, but she declined, standing instead at the edge of the rear platform as the fireproof warehouses and mercantile buildings of the wool district passed by on both sides of Summer, the last stretch before the channel.
Up front, Walsh peered into the shadows beyond the modest beam of his headlight. Near the intersection with Melcher Street, right before the bridge, a rectangular sign hung on a wire over the road. STOP, it warned, in 2-by-3-inch letters, 20 feet in the air. Walsh didn’t seem to notice that, but he spotted a man waiting beside the road and slowed — without stopping — so the guy could jump on.
Walsh nudged the controller handle, and the car regained speed — 5, 10, 15 miles an hour, it was hard to say; inside, Patsy turned to Biggi and mentioned that they seemed to be going faster than usual. Suddenly, Walsh spotted a set of metal gates blocking the road 30 feet away. For an instant, he froze, then he grabbed the brake handle with his right hand, yanking so hard it bent. But the car was moving too fast; the wheels locked, skidding along the tracks, the metal white-hot.
Walsh was frantically trying to throw the controller into reverse with his left hand when the car crashed through the gates. Just 25 feet remained now before the edge of the draw. Walsh found his voice, crying out, “Jump!”
On the sidewalk, across the bridge, on the tugboat below, bystanders turned at the sound of the crash and saw people leaping from both ends of a streetcar as it skidded toward the edge of the draw and teetered over the channel.
On the front platform, where the handful of riders around Walsh could see what was coming, everyone leaped to safety, tumbling onto the roadway atop the bridge; Walsh followed, just in time. On the back platform, it was bedlam.
Lillian Frank, still standing near the door, felt a sudden shove from behind — where her co-worker Nelson McFarlane had been standing — and flew into the air. Instinctively, she reached out to grab for the car. Then she smacked the ground, rolling to a stop by the edge of the bridge, where a stranger’s hand reached out to hold her back.
Some heard shrieks, others chilling silence. A few car-lengths back, Christopher Thompson, a Western Union messenger boy who’d been stealing a ride on the rear fender, dusted himself off in the street. At the squeal of the brakes, he had hopped down — thinking the car was stopping and the conductor would catch him hooking a ride. He first looked back, wary of getting flattened by an oncoming horse team or automobile. Now he turned toward the trolley, just in time to watch it plunge.
Amid the alarm gongs now ringing in the night, hospital ambulances and fire engines charging to the scene, McFarlane shouted something no one could make out, and collapsed.
Thompson ran to the edge. He thought he would see 30 people down below, splashing and calling for help. Instead, he saw just seven or eight, and no sign of the car.
With the rising tide halfway in, the drop to the oil-slicked surface was roughly 20 feet, and the water itself 30 feet deep and climbing. From the tugboat, Captain Harry Ross had watched the people writhing and grasping at the air as they fell alongside the car. The heavy trolley appeared to smack a wooden beam partway down and then plummet toward the water, throwing up a splash, sinking with a gurgle that could be heard outside South Station.
Ross sounded the bells and shot his tug toward the spot where the trolley went down, calling for his men to toss the rings and grab the lifeboats. They quickly hauled in three passengers, all of them floundering in the chilly water under heavy layers of clothing.
Atop the bridge, Shea shouted from the control house, and the two assistants who had closed the gates on each end sprinted down the bridge steps and dropped into a rowboat, helping to pull in three more. Down Summer Street, people who had been walking home in the warm weather ran to help, banging on the doors of the NECCO candy factory, calling for ropes.
In the water, Nelson McFarlane, who had pushed Lillian Frank before jumping as the car went over, popped back to the surface. He had just turned 17, an amateur boxer from Dorchester working by day at the Fish Pier. He was swimming toward the South Boston side of the channel when he noticed an older man thrashing, struggling to keep his head up. Grab my leg, McFarlane shouted, and he towed him to the edge. Rescuers hauled them both up, and then McFarlane, hatless and dripping, started to run across the bridge deck. Amid the alarm gongs now ringing in the night, hospital ambulances and fire engines charging to the scene, McFarlane shouted something no one could make out, and collapsed.
Inside the pitch-black car, the rush of cold water had shattered some windows and swept in through the doors, climbing quickly to the ceiling as the trolley sank to the muck. The panicked passengers, unable to see, unable to breathe, flailed and clawed; they tugged whatever they could touch, hoping desperately to untangle from the scrum and push or grope their way out.
Arthur Smith, 23, a Fish Pier salesman, felt a boot in the eye, then swift kicks to the ribs. Tall and strong, the former Arlington High football player worked his way backward and felt a window pane, then butted the back of his head against it, smashing the glass. He started to swim out — and got stuck, overcoat snagging.
Wriggling, trying not to panic, ears popping, lungs clenching, Smith felt one arm burst free of his coat, then another. He kicked to the surface, gasped, splashed, and smacked something with his hand, timbers at the base of the draw. Clinging with his fingertips, he cried out. A rope dropped from above. He gripped it with both hands and clamped down with his teeth, determined not to let go until he was firmly on land.
Those overcoats so in demand — $15 and up at Filene’s — were leaden anchors, sopping up water. Fred Robertson, a Masonic Lodge master from Reading and a superintendent at the Wireless Specialty Apparatus Co., had gotten lucky, finding himself right beside an already broken window. He heaved himself out and cleared the wreckage, kicking upward, an experienced swimmer at 42. From the corner of his eye he thought he saw a woman struggling in the water, but it took all his strength to stay afloat, his coat pulling him down. Hearing the shouts of police, the splash of rowboats, he told himself she would be fine, giving in now to the hands that pulled him over the side of a dory.
Patsy Iannessa had reached out for his friends, until the water and darkness extinguished his ability to make out anything but the writhing arms and legs, a struggle all around. He felt the smoothness of a windowpane and kicked. He passed through the jagged glass, cutting his head and hands, and powered to the surface. “God’s air!” he thought, gasping. The danger was over. He scanned the water, the crowd above. No sign of his friends.
Apatrolman directing rush-hour traffic at South Station heard the crash, saw what happened, and ran to an alarm box to flash word to the Lagrange Street district station. Soon, the news crackled across telegraph wires and telephone lines. From its berth near the mouth of the channel, Fireboat 44 steamed toward the Summer Street bridge, piercing the air with siren blasts.
Jumping in with his driver at fire headquarters, Senior Deputy Chief John Taber roared to the accident site. A veteran “smoke eater,” he had responded to every major Boston disaster since 1888. But he had never seen anything like this.
At the fire box, he tapped an emergency call for more ambulances, more ladders, more ropes — and a second call seeking divers from the wrecking companies and contractors who worked the waterfront. Already the first ambulances were rushing survivors to City Hospital and the Relief Station at Haymarket Square, but what of the scores still trapped below?
Taber, who had seen gasoline-powered fire engines replace horses, prayed that the speed of the trucks and the marvel of the new Pulmotor, a device to pump oxygen into the lungs of the unconscious, could save their lives — if only they could be freed from the unseen car.
At City Hall, first-term Mayor James Michael Curley had just reached his office to review election returns, exhausted from weeks of Democratic stump speeches and two straight days of parades for troops returning from the Mexican border. He wanted to sink into bed in the manse he had just built opposite Jamaica Pond.
But that all evaporated now, and Curley charged to the scene in his limousine, the gleaming Tammany Tess, parting a crowd that had formed rapidly on the Boston side. At 5:50, he stood on the deck of the drawbridge and surveyed the water, searchlights now illuminating the rowboats, Curley’s ruddy face a mask of concern and sorrow.
Hoping some of those trapped might retain a spark of life, the mayor telephoned the Navy Yard, flagging down Commandant William R. Rush to send sailors and divers and a massive floating crane. He put the Fire Department in charge of the rescue, and called on the Police Department to manage the crowds, with thousands now packing in and straining for a view. Curley feared the edge of the channel or one of the bridges might give way, that hundreds more would drop into the frigid water.
Detectives and reporters waded through the throng, seeking survivors and witnesses. They found motorman Walsh, ashen, wide-eyed, talking too fast. He insisted it had been dark, that the street light now shining overhead had been out, that the warning lantern now hanging on the damaged gate was not there, either, that he had tried desperately to stop the car, but the brakes failed him.
No, insisted John Fitzgerald, the bridge assistant who had closed the gates on the South Boston side, swearing that he had hung the lantern right before the car came crashing through, and that the street light had been shining, too.
Walsh stammered, insisting otherwise. As reporters scribbled, an Elevated official shot Walsh a look. “Haven’t I told you not to talk? Now keep quiet.”
In the water, illuminated by spotlights, firefighters and Harbor Police combed the muck with grappling hooks, searching for bodies and the streetcar.
At 6:45, gasps spread through the crowd. Three harbor officers in a rowboat had dragged up a body, roughly 80 feet upstream from the bridge. They rowed now to the side of the Guardian, the flagship of the police fleet, and passed the body tenderly over the gunwales. It was a laborer — 30ish, maybe, in a blue serge worksuit, black shirt, lace-up boots, and knit coat, his hands clenched.
A few minutes later, a second body surfaced, shorter, slimmer, even younger, in a gray sack suit and checked mackinaw, the short coat of the working class. The bodies were covered in tarpaulins and brought to the rear of the Guardian, sheltered from view, where Medical Examiner George Magrath leaned in close. There were no signs of life, no hope for the Pulmotors. Beside him, priests from St. James Parish administered last rites.
Few men in Boston were better known than Magrath, darling of the papers, star of the courtroom, recognized nationally as a father of forensic medicine. With his pipe and ribbon glasses, he was a Sherlock Holmesian figure who solved murders from microscopic clues hidden to police. But there was little mystery to solve here besides identity.
In the first man’s pockets, Magrath found a watch — stopped at 5:26 — and a bill for George Wencus of the West End. The second man carried a receipt suggesting his name was Antonio Della Pelle; the initials on his belt buckle seemed to confirm it.
At 7:15, a fire captain using a lead sounding line struck the submerged trolley at the bottom of the channel. Soon, the great whistle of the US Navy tug Iwana could be heard from the harbor, and a small flotilla came into view, a crane rising from the center. Mayor Curley and a clutch of officials boarded the Navy craft, conferring with the chief machinist. The crane could lift 10 tons safely. The trolley weighed 20 tons at least, more if it was packed with bodies. The crane would be no use.
As they waited for a bigger one, debating whether and how to raise the car, red lights gleamed for seven minutes atop the new Custom House Tower, the tallest building in New England, followed by white lights, visible not just at Fort Point Channel but for 50 miles, election-result signals corresponding with a code on the front page of the Globe. Samuel McCall, a Republican who had courted progressives, had just been elected governor; incumbent US Senator Henry Cabot Lodge had held off Democratic challenger John F. “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, the former mayor. The presidential race remained knotted. Around the channel, few even noticed.
The wrecking lighter Admiral steamed into view at 9, a behemoth mounted with a crane rated for 75 tons. Amid the dozen divers suiting up, the oldest would go down first: Peter Foley, a veteran of the waterfront working now for Hugh Nawn Construction Co.
Foley was a wiry bantamweight, 54 years old and 5-foot-4, a man whose real first name was Florence, his wife named Florence, too. As he donned his watertight suit, leaden shoes, and heavy helmet, he tried not to think of what he would find on the bottom.
All around, the brilliant searchlights made the whites on the sailors’ bell-bottoms and the brass buttons on the police and fire coats seem to glow, but all eyes were on the water, tracking the trail of Foley’s bubbles. Fifteen minutes later, his handlers felt a jerk on his line. Pull him up!
Foley was still clutching the ladder, his handlers removing his helmet, when the mayor called to him. “How does the car lie?”
“Just as she would if she were still on the rails,” Foley said. He looked ashen. The car had turned around somehow, facing back toward South Boston. One end was battered; most of its windows were smashed. As Foley had circled it on the bottom, the hands and arms of trapped bodies brushed him as he passed by.
The plan had been to send the divers down to fasten the crane’s chains and haul up the car immediately, but they worried the bodies would wash out the open windows. They chose instead to send the divers in teams to tie ropes around the bodies and haul them carefully to the surface, one by one.
The first bobbed up at 10, and the boom of a news photographer’s flashlight powder caused people to jump. A searchlight showed the victim to be another young working man, his open eyes staring up. The police superintendent, Michael Crowley, called out in the night: “By order of the medical examiner, allow no photographer to photograph the bodies,” said Crowley. “All officers will enforce this order.”
And so it went, for three hours, the divers knotting ropes around the bodies and sending them up one by one, the searchlights being turned away each time a victim crested to the surface, the men all around removing their hats. As the divers worked, the street light closest to the gate flickered and went out for a few minutes, then came back on. Maybe Walsh had been right.
Still, at 12:40 a.m., as the divers finished their work, Sergeant James Smith of District 6 arrested the motorman on manslaughter charges, taking him to the D Street station in a cab.
A half-hour later, with thousands still crowding the scene, Foley surfaced once more. The car was empty. Forty-four bodies had come up, all of them male; one more had been ruled dead hours earlier, in an ambulance bound for the Relief Hospital at Haymarket Square.
By 2 a.m., the crowd at the Northern District Mortuary in the West End had grown larger than the authorities could manage, wives and brothers wanting desperately to get in, their eyes swollen and red, babies crying in their arms.
Magrath’s staff let them in one at a time. John Carey went through once looking for his son, James, a wireworker and father of four who was due home to celebrate his 45th birthday. Carey’s daughter-in-law Susie had called the Cambridge police when James didn’t come home, and they told her about the accident; now it fell to the father at 66, and he stepped from the morgue relieved not to have recognized his son among the bodies.
The night air was cool now. It wasn’t like James not to come home, but John clung to the faintest hope that he was still out there somewhere — stuck in the next car behind the accident, caught up in the scene along the channel, or lost in the drama of election night along Newspaper Row, where all the dailies were projecting returns on screens hung across the street.
A second set of bodies came in, and he steeled himself to walk through once more, as a mortuary assistant lifted sheet after sheet. Still no sight of James; he allowed himself to exhale. And then a third set of victims rolled in, and there was his son, the very last body John Carey saw.
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The great crane on the Admiral groaned, and the streetcar surged above the choppy waters at 3:30 a.m., 10 hours after the crash. One end was bashed, as Foley had described, but the other looked ready for passengers to board, the sign over the vestibule still advertising a destination of Washington and Summer. Officials immediately cloaked it in a tarp.
Already the morning editions and the election extras cranked out by the evening papers were in the hands of the newsboys.
“45 Killed as Car Plunges Into Channel,” the Herald said above the flag, teasing a grim headline down the page. “HOMECOMING WORKERS FROM SOUTH BOSTON DIE LIKE RATS CAUGHT IN TRAP.”
Sure that more bodies lay in the channel, the Boston Journal put the count higher (“STREET CAR PLUNGE KILLS 50”) and the Post higher still (“54 DIE AS CAR DROPS IN BAY”), but the Daily Advertiser topped them both. “60 ARE DROWNED,” it declared. “FEW SAVED.”
The stories did not mince words. “The worst tragedy in the history of the city,” the Journal wrote; the Globe concurred, dubbing it “the greatest catastrophe that has ever taken place” in Boston.
Back on solid ground, Mayor Curley announced plans for a conference on drawbridge safety. In a few hours, City Councilor James J. Storrow would propose an ordinance to place clear warning signs 200 feet from every drawbridge and set a 6-mile-an-hour speed limit between those signs and the draws. On Beacon Hill, state Representative Lewis R. Sullivan, a Dorchester Democrat who had mounted a failed bid two years earlier to ban the tango, began drafting legislation to bar passengers from standing beside motormen on front platforms.
At noon, Magrath issued an updated list of victims, with 41 confirmed names. Reporters fanned out to track down more stories of the living and the dead, like John J. Craven, the woolhouse shipper who survived because he remembered a forgotten parcel on his desk just as he was about to board, and Kempton Singer, the electric-company coal tosser who died after finally getting out early after two weeks of overtime, leaving his fiancee to stare mournfully at his violin.
Investigators examining the trolley found no flaws besides the fresh accident damage, pointing only to poor visibility or human error. The twisted, battered brake handle showed how desperately Walsh had wrenched it. And on the floor, amid scattered hats and clothing, they found a gold bracelet engraved EHW — the initials of Elsie Wood, the Condit stenographer who had not reached home in Roxbury that night or returned to work the next morning.
In the channel, fire and police oarsmen continued to row back and forth, forgoing sleep, checking under piers and dragging the bottom, looking for Wood’s body and possibly others.
On State Street, police arrested a hysterical bootblack, only to learn at the station that the man had lost two cousins in the accident, fellow Italian immigrants. In Revere and Roslindale, Chelsea and Cambridge, families made plans for funerals. The flag flew half-staff at the Fish Pier, which had lost 10 men; down the road, Walworth had lost 17, men who’d gone home as always one Tuesday evening, never to return.
On Thursday, one of the trolley’s signs washed up in East Boston and another in Winthrop, 4 miles across the harbor. On Friday, grapplers pulled long seat cushions from the bottom of the channel 50 feet south of where the car went down — setting off a rumor that Elsie Wood’s body had come up and sending a police ambulance racing to Constitution Wharf to meet it. Her boss put up a $100 reward, spurring dozens of amateurs to venture out in rowboats all over the harbor; her family appealed to Mayor Curley, who agreed to send down another diver.
Readers sent money to newspaper offices, marked for the widows and orphans. Elevated officials promised to compensate any family that had lost a breadwinner.
The next week, the search for more bodies was called off. The investigation closed and the Summer Street bridge reopened.
The death toll remained at 45 until May, the worst streetcar accident in the nation’s history, when a body surfaced in the warming waters and someone spotted it bobbing beneath the Congress Street bridge. It was Elsie Wood, victim 46.
After a thorough investigation, the state Public Service Commission ruled that Walsh had been wrong to run the trolley right under a small, company-installed stop sign 200 feet from the bridge, but that many bridges had no such stop signs and motormen often failed to heed them anyway. The commission called for widespread installation of larger, standardized stop signs, for mandatory stops by drivers, and for every city or town with streetcars running over drawbridges to set the warning gates at a “safe distance.” They were to be painted with white and black stripes and hung with clearly visible red lights.
In October 1917, Walsh went to trial in Suffolk Superior Court. Seventy-four witnesses took the stand, including the conductor, George McKeon, who had been working his way toward the back door when the car went over. McKeon, who jumped, smacked his head, and blacked out before being rescued, was so shaken by the accident that he had still not returned to work. But he testified on Walsh’s behalf, saying that the car had been moving at a normal rate of speed, nothing strange about Walsh’s driving.
But others testified that the car had been going unusually fast, including Albert Case, a Western Electric credit manager who jumped from the front platform; he said Walsh hastily rolled through a series of stops from A Street until the crash.
The three bridge tenders swore that the street light was working and the red lantern had been in place. Several witnesses supported them; others did not. A police officer who walked the bridge on his beat said the street light had twice gone out earlier that week, relighting when he kicked it. And George Corning, the motorman on the last car to make it through before the accident, said the light was out when he crossed the bridge uneventfully at 5:18.
Defense attorney James Vahey, the carmen’s union counsel and a former Democratic gubernatorial candidate, said Walsh had done everything in his power to stop the car once he spotted the danger, and that the motorman would give anything to go back and live the day over.
The jury deliberated late into the night, and the next day returned a verdict: not guilty.
Gerald Walsh never again drove a streetcar. He worked at the A&P, served in World War I, visited his mother in Ireland, and returned to Boston. With his twin brother now high up in the union, Walsh got rehired by the Elevated, this time in the stockroom. Still haunted by the accident, he dropped dead from a blood clot at 41; for decades after, his family avoided speaking about the disaster.
McKeon, the conductor, went off to war, too, shipping off as a doughboy with the Army’s Yankee Division. On July 18, 1918, his company was part of a counterattack against the Germans near the Marne River in the Champagne region of France. Private McKeon was killed, his death not reported in the Boston papers until October, a month before the war’s end. The City Council named a side street in his honor near the South Boston Marine Park, not far from the P Street car house where he briefly worked; today, the street and the carhouse are both gone.
Instead of celebrating his birthday, James Carey’s family held a private funeral at home, then buried him in Wakefield. The widow of one of the Fish Pier men, Ira Steadman, buried her husband that Friday and delivered their eighth child the next week, naming him for his father.
Arthur Smith, one of just three or four to escape from inside the car on the bottom, married soon afterward and joined the Navy the following spring. He became a career officer, serving in both world wars, surviving the Pearl Harbor attack while commanding a cargo ship in nearby Honolulu Harbor. Both of his sons became naval officers, too. “Lucky is the girl who gets his bid to a prom,” the Lexington High yearbook entry read for one of them. Lucky that either was born.
Nelson McFarlane, the amateur boxer who pushed Lillian Frank to safety and saved another man in the channel, went on to run a restaurant and bar in the South End, Clarendon Gardens.
To his nephew, Herb, he was larger than life, the whisper of long-ago heroics contributing to the myth. When McFarlane died in 1958, his sister Katherine Chambers inherited his bar; after her son missed a shift, she fired 21-year-old Herb. Forced to find other work, he landed as a repairman in the nascent photocopier business, a first step toward becoming a billionaire, a magnate in copiers and then in car dealerships.
Just a few feet, a split-second decision, made the difference between family trees that flourished and branches cut short. Pasquale Iannessa’s “chums” never made it to 20. He was blessed with a full life. He courted his future wife with bicycle rides up to Stoneham, raised five children, and became a bakery driver with friends up and down his route. And after burying his brothers, John Macaluso, who just missed the car, kept working at Walworth for decades to come, a lonely commute. He had two sons and eight grandchildren and lived to nearly 90, outlasting the Walworth factory and the streetcar line.
For years, the disaster remained a grim measuring stick for Boston, mentioned immediately when a North End storage tank burst in 1919, killing 21 in a fast-moving wave of molasses; a Chinatown speakeasy collapsed in 1925, killing 43; or a streetcar jumped the tracks in Roxbury in 1939, killing six. Then an overcrowded nightclub called Cocoanut Grove ignited in 1942, trapping and killing a staggering 492, and the Summer Street Disaster receded into the mist.
In time only a few scattered families remembered, and even then some did not discuss it or chose to forget. Sophie (Wencus) Peterson is 92 now, and she remembers going with her father to Forest Hills on summer Sundays to put flowers on his brother’s grave. She knew only that her uncle died in an Elevated accident before she was born, that it still had the power to make her father cry.
Car 393 was repaired and returned to service, but few were willing to operate the “death car.” So the car was turned into a wrecker, assisting with derailments, disabled cars, and track work.
Nearly all the streetcar tracks across the city were ripped out or paved over in the decade after World War II; this route, from City Point to downtown via Summer Street, stopped running on June 19, 1953. The next day a bus replaced it, and it still follows the same route. There is even a stop at Summer and Melcher street, where Gerald Walsh slowed without stopping, squeezing on one last passenger that fateful night.
Tugs no longer pull barges through the channel, and the drawbridge motors were removed in 1970. The bridge decks are now fixed in place. But the bridge from 1899 is still there, spanning Fort Point Channel right by South Station. In a city with historic markers and tablets every few blocks, there is not a word here about the 46 commuters who dropped to their death in 1916. But every few minutes at rush hour, another bus rumbles over the bridge, lights glistening in the water below.
How this story was reported
Information about the accident and Boston in 1916 came from hundreds of contemporary articles in local and national newspapers; surviving public, legal, and genealogical records; multiple books; and interviews with descendants of victims and survivors.