Queenswalk: The Berlinville Disaster, Part Two


    On the evening of August 26, 1893, the LIRR train out of Rockaway Beach was running late. The day had been a half holiday, which, on this sweltering summer day, meant that thousands of people had flocked to the shore for picnics and strolling along the beach after putting in a morning at work. Holidays were few and far between in 1893, and most working people worked a six day week. An afternoon and evening at the beach was a treat, and since this was a Saturday, there was no rush to get back home, and people stayed out late. The railroad ran extra trains that night, correctly anticipating the crowds, and as the Rockaway Beach train rumbled its way through Brooklyn and Queens, all five of its cars were full of tired beachgoers.

    The Rockaway train shared the rails with another beach train; the Manhattan Beach Beach train, which carried people to the posh resort hotels of Manhattan and Brighton Beaches, in Coney Island. Although there was also an elevated train line that ran parallel to this train, at least part of the way, this was an LIRR train, not the line that would one day become the B and Q trains. Both trains came from their respective starting points on separate tracks, but merged onto the same track in East New York, before going on across Brooklyn, across Newtown Creek, and into Long Island City, before crossing into Manhattan.

    On this fateful night, a perfect storm of errors occurred, which is usually how these disasters usually seem to happen. As we learned in the first chapter of this story, the Manhattan Beach Beach train had some problems when it reached the long “S” curve outside of the small neighborhood of Berlinville, or just Berlin, now a forgotten part of Maspeth, near Calvary Cemetery. The curve was stretched out over a hilly grade, and the train was having trouble climbing the hill, and its wheels began to slip, just as the coupling came loose from the second and third cars. The last four cars rolled back down the hill, forcing the engineer to back up, go down the hill and re-attach the cars. Then he had to climb the hill again.

    The engineer, Otis Donaldson, performed the necessary steps, all went well, and as the customers began complaining and grumbling, the train started up the hill again, bound for Long Island City. The signal man, perched in a tower at the beginning of the long “S” was charged with signaling the trains behind him as to whether or not to proceed. Because of the winding and hilly nature of the hill, a train engineer could not see if the tracks ahead of him were clear, at that point. It was up to the signalman to give him a red light for stop, and no light for go. Initially, when the train had first cleared the hill, Signalman R. J. Knott had extinguished his light, signaling a “go.” But when the train had to back down the hill to reattach its wayward cars, Knott put the red signal out again.

    The Rockaway train had just entered the single track near Broadway Junction. It was running a bit late, was at full capacity, and its engineer, Frank Cronkite, was eager to make up time and arrive in Manhattan on schedule. The weather had cooled, and a heavy fog was rising from the warm earth, hampering visibility. As he approached the checkpoint at the “S” curve, he was speeding along, and never saw or disregarded the red signal to stop. He would later testify that the signalman had not flashed the second red signal in time for him to see it. He passed the signalman at a good clip, and his train was rapidly approaching the slow moving Manhattan Beach train as it cleared the other side of the hill. At his speed, and with the fog, and the added momentum of the hill to give him even more trajectory, Engineer Cronkite never saw the Manhattan Beach train until he smashed into it, right outside of Berlinville.

    The Rockaway train rear-ended the Manhattan Beach train with the force of an artillery shell. The force of the oncoming train smashed open the rear car on the Manhattan Beach train, throwing iron, glass, wood and people through the air. The car was split in two, crushing people underneath the train wheels and flying debris. People were decapitated, arms and legs torn off, and frail bodies tossed into the air, landing on spears of wood, glass and steel. The train kept going, tearing through the next to the last car, partially demolished that car, and sending it off the tracks into the rail bed. The first three Rockaway cars derailed, and were smashed along the ground. Both trains had death and destruction all around them.

    The Rockaway train finally came to rest at that point, and the only sounds that could be heard were the hiss of steam, followed by the screams and cries for help, and the frantic called of loved ones calling out to people who had been sitting with them only moments before. Most amazingly, over the din of this disaster could be heard the rumble of a train headed towards Long Island City. It was the engine and first cars of the Manhattan Beach train. They had come uncoupled again during the collision, and Engineer Donaldson was following standard orders to keep going, no matter what had happened. He did not stop. He was not running away, he was obeying the directive from the top offices of the Railroad to keep going, and to clear the track so that help could arrive.

    The frightened and somber survivors who rolled away from the accident did not know what hell they had been miraculously spared. Behind them, the scene looked as if a bomb had gone off. The dead and dying lay everywhere, and the wounded lay crying out, some with horrific injuries that they would not survive. Others were barely touched, and stood in shock, and then they began helping those around them.

    The papers of the day reported in great graphic detail all of the horrors of that night. They described maimed and mangled bodies, more than one man missing both legs or a foot or arm crying for help, and a dead woman pinned to the ground by two spears of wood from the train car. There were men, women and children dead. More than one person had been scalded to death by the steam from the ramming engine. One of the brakemen, Finn, was found dead in the wreckage. He had been in the last car.

    Dr. Knapp and his friends, Colonel Buck and his son, who we met in the last chapter, had been in the last car. They had seen the train barreling down on them, and had tried to jump off the train. Only Dr. Knapp was unhurt. The Colonel was dead, and his son was gravely injured. Dr. Knapp tended to the son, and began triage of the wounded around him, tying off arteries in one patient after another, saving them until other medical help could arrive.

    Help began arriving at the scene. The crash had occurred near the Haberman Manufacturing Company. Mr. Haberman and his staff arrived at the scene, and volunteered the factory as a makeshift hospital and morgue. A call went out to all of the doctors in Long Island City, and as doctors and ambulances began arriving at the scene, so too did officials from the railroad. Relief trains arrived, and began loading the most severely wounded up for transport to local hospitals. Chaplains and priests also began arriving, some had been on the trains, and began offering spiritual help to the dying and wounded.

    Not everyone at the scene was there to help. Some people, especially a group of young men and women from the neighborhood stood and did nothing but watch and make comments about the dead and dying. One young woman told a reporter that she “had come out to watch the fun.” Some young men were laughing as a young woman was being operated on in a tent, while they watched. A lone constable tried to scatter them, but he was soon overpowered, and no one had time to get rid of them.

    The engineer of the Rockaway train, Cronkite, was laboring as hard as anyone, while tears ran down his face. As he worked he swore that he had not seen the red signal, and he swore that he had stuck with his car. But the fact that he was alive and unharmed seemed to be impossible, if that were true. The roof of the last car of the Manhattan Beach train had been sheared off by the crash, and had flown like a missile through the engineer’s car, slicing off the smokestack and then crashing into the first car of the Rockaway train, killing and wounding many there. Had he been in there, he would have been dead. He had obviously jumped before the two trains collided.

    The dead were eventually all removed to a mortuary in Newtown, and the grisly and sad duty of identifying and claiming the dead began. Family members and friends began arriving, with more and more people leaving the building in tears or hysterics. From family members and friends came the tales of people who had gone out to the beach on this special holiday, how some had saved up for the occasion, and how others had not wanted to go, but did so to please relatives. All of the stories were tragic, most especially those of children who did not understand why their parent or parents were not coming home.

    Then the blame game began. The police arrested just about everyone: Engineer Cronkite of the Rockaway train, and Signalman Knott, up in the tower. They also arrested the conductor of the Manhattan Beach train, John Mott and Charles W. Hessner, who was in charge of Signal Tower 6, which gave the go ahead to Signalman Knott. A Coroner’s Inquest and a Grand Jury investigation followed. The blame looked like it would be shared by Cronkite and Knott. Eventually, the sole blame laid to rest on poor Knott, and it was decided that he did not display the red signal long enough for Cronkite to see it.

    The Grand Jury refused to indict him, however, but offered a scathing blame to not only Cronkite and Knott, but the Long Island Railroad itself, for failing to operate the train line in a safe manner. The jury said that the railroad knew that this “S” curve was dangerous, and should have had better signals in place, should have had more signal towers, if proved necessary, they should have cleared the track of trees and other growth that made the signal harder to see, and should have trained its workers better. No officials from the railroad were charged, and no criminal charges at all were ever filed against anyone.

    The New York Times offered a scathing editorial decrying the verdict. Sixteen people died in the wreck, and over forty were seriously injured. The Times was quite angry that no one would be held criminally responsible, and that the victims and their families could not see justice done in the criminal courts, leaving them only the recourse of suing the railroad. Because of laws of the day, the most the entire group could win would be $80,000, because laws only allowed for suing for damages, but not pain and suffering. One of the worst disasters in the Long Island Railroad’s history would end with nothing more than a pitiful whisper.

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