MechanicsA Weekly Journal of Engineering and Mechanical Progress—January 21, 1882


THE SPUYTEN DUYVIL railroad disaster was deemed of sufficient importance by Governor Cornell to warrant the transmission of a special message to the Senate. There is nothing particularly new in the reflections which this accident has suggested to the Governor, and his recommendations are in accordance with the generally accepted lesson of the disaster. They, however, carry weight as coining from one of the participants in the law-making power. The Governor insists that the duty of warning an approaching train of another standing on the track before it, should be confided to at least two different persons. The defective methods of heating and lighting railroad cars and the absence of any appliances to fight the flames when once started, or to rescue passengers imprisoned in the burning cars, also received attention. On the same day that the Governor's message was received, a bill was introduced in the Senate, having for its object the accomplishment of some of the suggestions contained in the message. This bill requires that a serviceable ax shall be carried at each end of every railroad car used for the transportation of passengers, mail or express matter, and that each car shall be furnished with a fire extinguisher. Another bill has been prepared, and will be presented as soon as an organization of the House is effected, which is even more explicit. It requires that every car used for the transportation of passengers shall be provided with a woodman's ax, a fireman's hook, a sledge hammer two leather water buckets and one portable fire extinguisher, These articles must be kept in good repair, ready for instant use, and in some convenient place easy of access, in case of fire or accident, While these regulations are eminently desirable in the light of present knowledge, and while it may be necessary to have legislative enactment upon the subject, we do not feel that the end desired can be best attained by legislative direction as to the means which shall be employed. If the law can direct the railroads to provide against accidents by the best known methods, and can hold them directly responsible for any accidents which take place for want of such provisions, we think the desired end will be attained. Certainly railroad men and railroad managers understand the dangers of travel and the means of providing against accidents far better than our law makers. Legislation unfortunately must be general. Protection against accidents must be particular. If the roads comply with the letter of the law, they may not then have done all that they know how to do for securing safety. We therefore hold that the greatest effort of the law ought to be directed toward compelling the railroads to do the very best they know how. Probably future laws will look in this direction.

IT HAS BEEN SUGGESTED that if our railway trains were all heated by steam, such a disaster could never occur; that, with steam heating, no train after an accident would be liable to take fire and burn. When one train runs into another, or when a locomotive is wrecked and cars piled on top of it, there will be, so long as cars are built of wood or combustible materials, danger that they will take fire and be destroyed. Judging from the newspaper accounts, the fire in this case was caused by coals from the engine. It is possible that the heaters were crushed and poured their contents out into the broken woodwork. If all the heaters were removed and a single large one placed in a separate car, this would be equally liable to happen in an extensive accident, for the steam would have to be distributed in pipes, as is now the case, and scalding steam would add its terrors to the wreck.

ALMOST EVERY PHASE has been discussed at length in the newspapers, except the primary cause of the accident itself. This was the setting of the brakes at a time when they were not called for, and their failure to be properly released when it was desired to do so; the carelessness of the train hands; the spilling of fire from the ash-pan of the engine, or from the broken heaters, and the burning of the cars, and all grew out of this failure of the brake mechanism. Doubtless the automatic portion of any power brake has its advantages, but these are not without their dangers, and these dangers are all the more serious because they are, at the present time, to a certain extent unknown. It may be said that the automatic apparatus should always be kept in order, and that there should never be any cause for its going on at improper time. When, however, it can be applied from the inside of the cars, there is always danger of its being done by accident or malice. Another defect of the power brake ought to be remedied at once, and that is the slowness with which the brake is thrown off when once applied with full force. This in more than one instance has narrowly escaped causing accident.

THE ONLY LIGHT which seems to be entirely suitable for railway cars in case of severe accidents is that produced by electricity. Whether the introduction of the electric light upon railway trains would introduce new sources of danger, it is hard to say at the present time. The fire risk would, we suppose, with such lighting be reduced merely to the danger from the furnace of the engine. The convenient and economical application of the electric light to railway cars probably involves as many engineering difficulties as can well be imagined. The cars are long and comparatively low, making it difficult to properly place the burners, and there must be a complex machine to generate the electricity. The attention which the light and machines would have would be of the most ordinary sort, and the machinery itself would have to be built to withstand very rough usage. In England the electric light from Swan's system of incandescent lamps has been tried on railways, using secondary or storage batteries. The batteries themselves, however, for a comparatively short run, weighed, we believe, something over two tons, and it would therefore not be probable that such a system could be economically adopted here.


Coroner's Jury—October 21, 1882

The Coroner's jury, in the case of the New York Central and Hudson River tunnel accident, has rendered its verdict. As is fashionable at the present time, it is comprehensive—entirely so. It lays the blame upon the conductor, the overworked signal man, telegraph operator, the water boy, who was acting in place of rear brakeman, the president, vice-president, directors, corporation, and, we should judge, stock and bond holders of all the companies that run trains through the tunnel. If the verdict had also included all the passengers, the citizens of New York City, and Westchester County in particular, and by implication also those of the State, and of Connecticut and New Jersey, we think the verdict would have been equally valuable, and quite as effective. We do not, for the life of us, see how an over-worked signal man, carrying out a faulty system with imperfect means at his command, can be held responsible, nor do we see how, when by a system of conscription, the water boy was forced to take the place of a brakeman, blame can be thrown upon his
shoulders. The conductor, with more experience in railroading, was certainly more responsible; but even here he was surrounded by conditions forced upon him by the breaking down of a faulty system. The intelligent observer cannot fail in his own mind to locate the blame with the general superintendent. The fault in this case is not with the employees, and other accidents will demonstrate that the brakemen and conductors on this road will be forced by the unwritten rules of the road to do things which, in case of accident, will in every instance throw the blame upon their own shoulders, unless juries take a more liberal and comprehensive view of the railroad rules, written and unwritten. It is notorious on The New York Central that brakemen do not go back to protect trains. In case of accident, the superintendent calmly points to his rules and says, "they ought to go back. If they do not, they are the blamable parties." It is not at all probable that on a railroad as carefully managed in many respects as this one is, these deviations from important rules are unknown and not connived at by the superintendent and his subordinates, and this being the case, he is certainly responsible for the violation of his servants. If this violation is, as we believe it to be, the result of verbal orders, certainly it is unjust to lay the responsibility on the shoulders of the servant. We do not believe that this conductor, train boy or telegraph operator will ever be brought to trial, nor do we believe that the parties on whom the chief blame of the Spuyten Duyvil accident was laid will ever find it necessary to defend themselves in a court of justice.


According to General Superintendent Toucey the collision was a direct result of the violation of Rule Fifty-Three in the N.Y.C. & H.R. rule book:

Rule 53—Whenever a train is stopped on the road, or is only enabled to proceed at a slow rate, the conductor must immediately send a man with a red signal at least a half-mile back, on double-track, and the same distance in both directions on single-track, to stop any approaching train, which signal must be shown while the detention continues.

This must always be done whether another train is expected or not. In carrying out these instructions the utmost promptness is necessary; not a moment must be lost in inquiry as to the cause of stoppage or probable duration; the rear brakeman must go back instantly. Conductors will be held strictly responsible for the prompt enforcement of this rule.

It was discovered at the Coroners Inquest that the Brakeman, Mr. George Melius, although employed by the road for more than 20 years, could neither read nor write.

Later a grand jury indicted Conductor Hanford and Brakeman Melius on the charge of manslaughter in the fourth degree, and recommended:

  1. Discontinuance of mineral oil for the illumination of cars.
  2. Use of steam or hot water or hot air heating of cars instead of heating by direct radiation.
  3. Extension of the block signal system.
  4. Larger train crews.
  5. Employment of signalmen at all dangerous cuts and curves.
  6. Trainmen and others holding responsible positions should be required to read and write.
  7. Inclusion of water pails and tool boxes containing axes, etc., on every train.
  8. "The practice of giving free passes to legislators and others holding office under our state and city governments is contrary to all proper ideas of good public policy and should be prohibited by law."

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