The Malbone Street Wreck

The Malbone Street Wreck

The Malbone Street Wreck

The Malbone Street Wreck


On November 1, 1918, as the Great War in Europe was entering its final hours, a five-car elevated train was heading for the Flatbush section of Brooklyn with hundreds of homeward-bound commuters aboard. As the train rumbled down a short hill between Prospect Park and Ebbets Field in the very heart of Brooklyn, the unthinkable happened: the motorman lost control and the train left the tracks as it curved into a tunnel at the foot of the hill. The ensuing disaster, known ever since as the Malbone Street Wreck, took the lives of almost a hundred people and stands as the worst mass-transit accident in U. S. History. Unlike the Titanic disaster, however, the Malbone Street Wreck has received scant attention from scholars and historians over the years. As is so often the case, popular accounts of the tragedy have managed to enshrine as dogma things that are absolutely untrue. Now, Fordham University Press is proud to present Brian J. Cudahy's long-awaited account of the Malbone Street Wreck, a book that recounts the events leading up to the disaster, describes the faithful trip from its beginning to end, and reviews efforts conducted after the tragedy to fix blame and establish liability. Could the Malbone Stret Wreck have been avoided? Clearly yes, is Cudahy's answer. Had any number of factors not combined in precisely the way that they did, the five-car train might have well continued its journey to Brighton Beach in a completely uneventful manner. But they did happen exactly as they happened, and that is why The Malbone Street Wreck makes such arresting reading. Could another Malbone Street Wreck happen at some future time in New York, or on any other U. S. Mass Transit System? Transit professionals will have to answer this question after they read Cudahy's account of how and why November 1, 1918 has become such an important day in transportation history.


In the early evening hours of Friday, November 1, 1918, a five-car rapid transit train filled with hundreds of homeward-bound, rushhour passengers left the tracks at the foot of a short, downhill grade in Brooklyn, New York, and crashed into the side of a new concrete and steel tunnel. Ninety-three people lost their lives in this tragedy that has since been known as the Malbone Street Wreck. This is the story of that terrible evening and the events surrounding it.

Growing up in Brooklyn, I vividly recall continual references in my family to three 20th-century tragedies, each of which taught a different lesson. the first was the Lindbergh kidnapping of 1932. This event resulted in constant admonitions for caution: there were people out there with evil intentions for whom we must always be on the alert. the second event was the tragic sinking of rms Titanic in April 1912. Its lesson was more fatalistic than anything else: sometimes even the most careful plans and the very best efforts are for naught. the year after this disaster my mother crossed the North Atlantic aboard rms Baltic and rms Celtic, White Star Line fleet mates of the Titanic. She often spoke of passengers' gathering on deck for a religious service as they steamed past the site of the sinking. the third tragic incident that I recall being discussed in our home was the Malbone Street Wreck of 1918. Its message was less clear. My family responded with anger, even outrage. Innocent people died because other people failed to do their jobs properly. My mother, who was almost 11 years old at the time, lost two cousins on the ill-fated train.

As I grew older, I learned more about the Malbone Street Wreck. Much of what I heard was incomplete, distorted, and even incorrect. As often happens with events that produce broadscale social trauma, early imprecision and unfounded speculation quickly became accepted as truth and took on the aura of dogma.

I always knew exactly where the accident happened, and for six years of my life—four years of high school and two of college—travel . . .

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