Prologue: The Accidental Terminal
On Wednesday morning, January 8, 1902 — 111 years ago — Train 118, the local from White Plains, was late. It was due at Grand Central Station at 8:15 a.m., but, already behind schedule, it was delayed at 110th Street for nearly five minutes to let another southbound local, this one from Croton, pass ahead of it. Incoming delays to Grand Central were nothing new. After all, since the Park Avenue Tunnel was built in 1875, three railroad companies had shared the four-track main line down Manhattan's spine. By 1902, the three railroads carried 44,000 passengers every weekday, or 16 million a year, on a total of 177,450 trains — one every 45 seconds during rush hours. Since 1991, the terminal's south and west facades have been bathed in 136,000 watts of floodlight at night.
At the throttle of Train 118 was 36-year-old John M. Wisker. Even on the best of days, Wisker, the mustachioed son of German immigrants, was not a patient man. Although he had worked for the railroad for seven years, he'd spent most of that time as a locomotive fireman and had been promoted only the previous August to engineer, and even then he mostly filled in for full-timers. As an engineer, he usually piloted milk trains, early in the morning before the road became more congested. That week, he had no intention of piling up a record for tardiness, especially on what amounted to a tryout on a prestigious commuter route. Leaving the apartment he shared with his wife in the Bronx, he would ordinarily get to work while it was still dark, though this week, because he was on call, he slept on a bare wooden bench in the roundhouse in White Plains. That, he explained later, made him even more nervous than usual, coupled with the fact that the locomotive he was driving had a record of faulty air brakes.
On Sunday night, January 5, the regular engineer of Train 118 had called in sick. Wisker was recruited to replace him. On Monday, Wisker piloted a passenger train through the Park Avenue Tunnel for the first time. On Tuesday, Train 118 arrived at Grand Central promptly at 8:15. But on Wednesday, the train was already a minute and a half late when it left White Plains. Wisker was worried about making up lost time in between the seven stations on the 19-minute run. The unlit tunnel reeked of coal gas. It was not only smoky but also foggy that morning. "Unusually murky," was how one flagman described it. Outside, it was snowing. "It was just the kind of weather that would make smoke or vapor hang in the air a long time without being shattered," Thomas F. Freel, an acting battalion chief of the city's fire department, later recalled.
A crew member would testify that No. 118 was proceeding at a robust 20 mph, but a railroad official who was on the train later estimated that it was speeding through the tunnel at up to 35 mph. By this point, the train was five minutes late. Whether Wisker saw the green cautionary light (this was before green meant go), a flare, red lanterns, and other warning signals and simply ignored them was never definitively determined by railroad officials or by a grand jury. He insisted that he did not, nor did he hear the fireman's cry of "Green," although according to one version Wisker applied a brake at the last moment. When he saw the red light at 58th Street, where the mouth of the tunnel yawned into a vast open-air train yard two cross-town blocks wide and below street level, it was too late. One news reporter interviewed Wisker before his arrest and wrote, "The only explanation he can give is that he was trying to make up lost time." Wisker, a news report concluded, "was sober, but he was both ambitious and impatient of delay."
What is known for sure is that at exactly 8:20, without warning and despite the heroic efforts of a brakeman, Train 118 slammed into the rear car of a Danbury commuter train parked on the same track. The Danbury express was awaiting a signal that yard work had been completed so it could proceed to Grand Central, where it had been due at 8:17. Fifteen passengers, among the 60 who boarded in the last car at the New Rochelle station, were killed instantly. Most were crushed to death by the telescoping engine or scalded in a horrific mass of twisted wreckage, mangled limbs, and sputtering steam that remains Manhattan's worst railroad accident.
The last bodies were not removed for more than 10 hours. "The hissing steam and smoke made it seem that I was going to be cooked alive," said Richard H. Mollineux, 23, who fractured his right thigh and was among the 36 passengers injured. Two of these died within a week. Among the dead were Amanda F. Howard, who had been married only six months and worked at Standard Oil; Theodore Fajardo, a Spanish-born buyer for a Cuban importing firm, who left a widow and four young children; and Oscar Meyrowitz, general manager of E.B. Meyrowitz Opticians, established by his brother, Emil. "As slowly the harvest of death reaped in the hole under the New York streets is being garnered in the homes of New Rochelle," the New York Times reported, "the townsmen of the dead and the maimed are beginning to ask each other not how this thing occurred, but why."
J.H. Franklin, the manager of Grand Central, singled out John Wisker for blame. But the Reverend J.E. Lovejoy of the Mott Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church, in his sermon the following Sunday, defended Wisker, his devout parishioner, and pointed fingers elsewhere. "It is easy to convict a poor man of almost any crime, but it is almost impossible to prosecute the rich man, who with haughty insolence jingles his dollars in his pockets and pulls powerful influences his way." A coroner's inquest lodged no formal charges, but a special state commission delivered a stinging rebuke to the railroad for gross negligence "in putting an engineer of such limited experience and unascertained capacity" at the controls of a passenger train at rush hour. No railroad officials were charged, however. Wisker was indicted for second-degree manslaughter because he "unmistakably violated the well-known rule which, under the conditions surrounding him, required him to stop his train."
The crash occurred at 56th Street, not far from the Vanderbilt mansion on Fifth Avenue. Cornelius Vanderbilt III and Alfred Vanderbilt, great-grandsons of the Commodore, rushed to the scene in time to learn that Wisker had been arrested by the New York City police pending a coroner's inquest. Almost on the spot, they joined other railroad officials, including William J. Wilgus, the New York Central's chief engineer, in a decision that would change the face of New York. Given the state railway commission's subsequent findings, the grand jury's decision not to prosecute the railroad's chief executives this time was simply too close for comfort. "It was not enough that the New York Central Railroad had been maintaining for many years a defective signal system and that any day a serious accident might happen as a result of the maintenance of such a system," said William Travers Jerome, the district attorney (he was a nephew of Leonard Jerome, who had been Cornelius Vanderbilt's stockbroker), "but it must have been found affirmatively, and beyond reasonable doubt, that this particular accident, with the ensuing deaths, occurred as the direct result of its defective system." The next time, a grand jury might do just that.
Even with the recent renovations, Grand Central Station, which was already outmoded the day it opened a generation earlier, would have to be razed. The rails would have to be electrified. The goat pastures and shanties that still dotted mid-Manhattan would be replaced by a colossal Grand Central Terminal. It would be a majestic gateway to the nation's greatest city, the catalyst for a new Midtown flanking a breathtakingly luxuriant boulevard, and a prototype for innovative transportation and urban planning imperatives across the country.
In short, the new Grand Central Terminal was built, in a way, by accident.
Excerpted from Grand Central: How A Train Station Transformed America by Sam Roberts. Copyright 2013 by Sam Roberts. Excerpted by permission of Grand Central Publishing.