The eastern entrance to Prospect Park — at the intersections of Ocean Avenue, Flatbush Avenue and Empire Boulevard — invites you to a host of the park’s greatest treasures today — from Prospect Park Zoo to the Lefferts Historic House. Outside the park is the bustling neighborhood of Prospect Lefferts Garden (historically a part of Flatbush). A couple blocks east of this spot is the former site of Ebbets Field.
But the tranquility of this historic area was disrupted permanently on November 1, 1918, when the worst disaster in the history of the New York City subway occurred here.
Empire Boulevard was once called Malbone Street. Because of the severity of this disaster, its name became so painful to the neighborhood that it was almost instantly phased out.*
The disaster involved a speeding elevated train heading around a curve into a tunnel at the Prospect Park station.
I’ll use the newspapers of the day to tell this story:
“A Brighton Beach train of the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company, made up of five wooden cars of the oldest type in use, which was speeding with a rush-hour crowd to make up lost time on its way from Park Row to Coney Island, jumped the track shortly before 7 o’clock last evening on a sharp curve approaching the tunnel at Malbone Street, in Brooklyn, and plunged into a concrete partition between the north and south bound tracks.
Nearly every man, woman and child in the first car was killed and most of those in the second were killed or badly injured.” [New York Times 11/2/1918]
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, having to balance horrific local news with updates from the warfront in Europe:
“Of the dead, sixty-seven bodies have thus far been identified. There are still in the morgue of the Kings County Hospital and at several hospitals throughout the borough thirty bodies awaiting identification. The work of identifying them is proceeding very slowly, for many of them were mangled virtually beyond recognition, clothing and even jewelry and other personal belongings, that would otherwise serve to make them known, was torn from their bodies.
All of this — the ninety-seven dead [the final count would be 93], the long list of injured, the terrible mutilation of the bodies, the fell blow that has come upon hundreds of homes — gives but a faint hint of the greatest transportation disaster in the history of the city, a catastrophe utterly without precedent, a blow that has come with such stunning force upon all of Brooklyn and especially the Flatbush section, as actually to stagger the imagination.” [Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 11/2/1918]
“The tunnel was a mass of wreckage, in which many of the injured scrambled feebly to release themselves, while others lay motionless. The wreckage caught fire, filling the place with smoke. Rescuers clambered down the walls of the cut at either end of the tunnel and fought feverishly to release the living and the bodies of the dead.
Their task and that of police reserve summoned to keep crowds in check was complicated by hundreds of women, mad with anxiety for husbands or other relatives who had not returned at the usual hour from Manhattan. The women fought with each other and with the police to reach the sides of the those who were carrying up bodies in gunnysacks, and strove to rip open each sack to see whether they recognized the body within.” [New York Tribune, 11/2/1918]
A myriad of unfortunate factors went into this tragic day. The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers had gone on strike that very day, and the trains were operated by non-union conductors. Edward Luciano, the driver of the ‘death train’, had actually survived the crash.
He was extremely untrained for the job and had been on the job for 11 hours. Knowing this, his supervisor still promised him $20 if he would stay on longer to work the rush-hour shift. In addition, Luciano was also experiencing personal trauma; his baby daughter had died a few days before of the Spanish flu.
In the wake of the accident, Luciano actually fled the scene and returned home. When detectives found him, he was in total shock.
“‘A man has to earn a living.’ He said he remembered nothing until he found himself at home, following the accident. He does not know how he managed to get out of the wreck, nor how he got home. He says he has an indistinct recollection of having boarded a trolley car but cannot remember what car it was. He was seated in a chair, pale as death, when the detectives reached his home. He was very nervous and seemed to be on the verge of a collapse.” [New York Times, 11/2/1918]
The age of the train cars, the mis-coupling of two trailer cars and tunnel construction at the Prospect Park station also played a role in the severity of the disaster.
One of the trains, rescued from the crash site:
What made this tragedy even more surreal to many was its appearance in newspapers alongside war casualties. For a time, it seemed death and destruction were inescapable.
And lest you think politics after a national tragedy is a recent invention, here’s a political advertisement which ran in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle the following day, an ad on behalf of Al Smith‘s gubernatorial bid (which he went on to win).
Both Luciano and his employer Brooklyn Rapid Transit were charged with manslaughter but were eventually acquitted. Remarkably, three of the five train cars were able to be repaired and returned to service. As for the ‘tunnel which the death train plunged’, it’s part of the Franklin Avenue Shuttle and only sometimes used.
This video captures a moment when the tunnel was returned briefly to service.
*The name Malbone Street still exists, reflected on a half-block street about four blocks away.