On May 31, 1897, Decoration Day, a group of young adults from the Greene Avenue Baptist Church in Stuyvesant Heights were gathering for a celebration of the holiday we now call Memorial Day.
The group of young people were in their late teens and early 20s. Many of the boys were members of the Alpha Delta Theta fraternity, which was organized through the church. The girls were church members, and most were upscale kids who lived in Stuyvesant Heights and knew one another from their schools, the neighborhood and church.
A majority of the kids and some of the chaperones were going to ride their bicycles to Long Island, but one group wanted to really make a party out of it. So they hired a coach, team and drivers to take them out to the Island, and things didn’t quite go as planned.
The coach was called a tally-ho, a familiar sight to any late-19th-century setting. It was an open stagecoach drawn by a team of four or six horses, usually wrangled by a driver and his assistant.
Some models had a cabin where people could sit, but most tally-ho coaches had open seating on top of the coach itself. They were heavy — over two tons — and could hold about 25 people, many of them practically hanging off the sides. The coaches were commonly used for leisurely excursions such as this.
The young man, Lawrence K. Barnes, Jr., and his friends went to the stable the morning of the trip and decorated the tally-ho with ribbons in the Alpha Delta Theta colors, bunting and bright flags. The carriage arrived at the church all festooned and ready for a fun day.
Greene Ave Baptist Church, now Antioch Baptist. Photo by Suzanne Spellen
The kids and chaperones who weren’t on the coach, about 40 of them, set on off on their bikes. Meanwhile, the group in the tally-ho, along with their chaperone, Mrs. Newell P. Andrus, made a couple of trips on the way to the road to Long Island, stopping at other lawn parties and picking up more riders.
The coach driver, Henry McCormick, specialized in driving tally-hos and other coaches that utilized a larger team of four or more horses. His helper, Edward Kenney, had worked at the Hamilton Stables for several years.
The group made their way through Stuyvesant Heights, Bushwick, Jamaica and on toward Valley Stream. Everyone was laughing, singing and blowing party horns. They were on the Merritt Road, just outside of Valley Stream when the unthinkable happened.
The tally-ho caught up to most of the cyclists. Witnesses said that the people on board were tooting their horns and shouting, and the cyclists were standing by the side of the road waving to the laughing group on board. People who lived in the area saw the cyclists and the coach go by, the latter pretty slowly.
Up ahead was a railroad crossing. The Long Island Railroad tracks cut through some woods and overgrown bushes at that point, before the clearing where the tracks crossed the road. When the train reached a certain point on the track, well before the crossing, its passage triggered an electric bell that warned those on the road that the train was approaching.
Train operators would also sound their own horns, letting people know the train was coming. The crossing did not have any kind of fencing or bar that came down to prevent crossing the tracks, or any attendants.
The two-ton tally-ho made its way down Merrick Road and proceeded to cross the train tracks. It was right in the middle of the track when a train came out of nowhere and hit the rear wheel of the coach.
The coach and the men and women on board went flying. The tally-ho was crushed and broken apart, with pieces of wood and iron flying, along with the bodies.
Later, the driver of the coach, McCormick, would testify that the bell that was supposed to warn of an approaching train never sounded. He also said he never heard the train ring its own warning, either. Because of the bushes, he didn’t see the train until it was about 40 feet from him, at which time he tried to get the coach off the tracks.
The train engineer saw the coach at the same time and tried to stop, but couldn’t. He clipped the back wheel, causing the tally-ho to flip into the air, flinging people right and left. The shattered pieces of the wood and steel coach became missiles.
One of the young men on the coach, 18-year-old Harry S. Lewis, was at the very top of the tally-ho. He was the only one to see the smoke trail of the engine and yelled for everyone to jump.
But no one heard him in the noise of the group’s fun and laughter and the blowing horns. With only seconds to spare, he tried to pull the girl next to him off the coach.
He wasn’t strong enough, she didn’t understand what he was trying to do, and his momentum caused him to fall off right before the train smashed into the tally-ho. He saw his older brother die, and his companions crushed and maimed.
When the dust settled, bodies of young people and the remains of the coach were scattered on the track and in the surrounding area. Astonishingly, the team of horses was unhurt and just standing there, waiting for someone to take care of them. But the tally-ho was a blood-covered wreck.
Four boys and one girl were dead at the scene. Another boy died before he could be taken to the hospital. At least 20 other tally-ho passengers were seriously wounded, and several of those were not expected to survive.
1897 photo via Brooklyn Eagle
The cyclists in the group looked on in horror at the scene. Some of them rode to nearby homes and businesses to get help. Of all of the people on the tally-ho, only two were not injured at all, including Harry Lewis. He and others rushed to help whomever they could.
The girl Harry had tried to help, a Miss Stewart, was lying in the dirt, her clothes completely ripped off. She was screaming in pain. He and his friend covered her with something and moved on.
They found Lawrence Barnes, the boy who had rented the coach, in a muddy pool of water, which had broken his fall. He was face down, unconscious but alive. They pulled him out, made sure he was breathing and moved on.
Other people rushed to help, but for many it was too late. The train operator rushed from the train to find the body of a girl draped over the cowcatcher. They thought she was dead, but she groaned in pain and was lifted carefully from the iron arms of the engine.
Another boy, William Gilchrist was dead, his skull fractured and his leg broken so badly that it dangled from his body.
Young Harry’s brother Leslie died of a broken neck, with both legs broken and a fractured skull. A third boy, George Pashley, was identified by his wallet and the contents of his pocket. His body was so damaged, it was the only way to recognize him.
The young woman who died was Miss Dora Bertsch of Stuyvesant Avenue. Her face was untouched, and her body undamaged except for the large shard of wood that been driven though the back of her head. Her sister was one of the most badly wounded, and she would later die from her injuries.
Many of the survivors had broken bones, internal injuries, skull fractures and other serious wounds. It took doctors and emergency workers about 20 minutes to start arriving, and the injured were taken to local hospitals, some by the train that hit them.
The dead were taken to a makeshift morgue. The horrible task of notifying families went to the hospital staff, as well as members of the Greene Avenue Baptist Church.
The driver of the tally-ho walked away from the accident with only bruises. But an hour later, he collapsed at the scene. He had a skull fracture and was taken to the hospital with the others.
Within hours of the accident, the president and officials of the Long Island Railroad showed up, along with investigators, reporters and city officials. The Brooklyn Coroner took charge of the dead, who were taken back to Brooklyn for the inquest.
The following weeks would be filled with investigations, speculation, rumors, charges and lawsuits. There would also be funerals and a mourning community in Stuyvesant Heights.
The community wondered, why didn’t the bell sound? Did the bell sound? Whose fault was this horrific accident, and would anyone be held responsible and made to pay? Was it the coachman? The train engineer? The Long Island Railroad itself? The riders on the tally-ho? Read about that in Part 2 of the story.
[Top photo: Tally-ho coach via State of the Ozarks]
A Shattered Stuy Heights Community Picks Up the Pieces of the Grisly 1897 Tally-Ho Disaster
Building of the Day: 828 Greene Avenue (Antioch Baptist Church)
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