Friday’s From the Historical Archive: John M. Wisker

Last week I posted about the Park Avenue Tunnel Wreck in 1902. The engineer of the train involved in that wreck was named John M. Wisker.

I was curious to know the fate of this man after the events of the wreck. He was put on trial for manslaughter for the deaths in the wreck, but was ultimately acquitted. I can only imagine the emotional toll this all took on him. From the start of the whole ordeal, he was blamed for the wreck. Newspapers questioned his experience as an engineer. He was even held in jail for a short time.

This was a gruesome crash. Newspapers described some victims as boiling to death from the steam of the engine. Telescoping is a term that you don’t ever want to hear in a sentence alongside anything having to do with rails. Imagine a collapsible telescope, and how the tubes slide into one another to become smaller. Now imagine the same thing in a rail collision: the force causes the cars to collapse into one another, one car sliding inside the others, resulting in heavy casualties.

In 1903 Wisker’s trial began, and later on that week he himself testified about the unsafe conditions of his locomotive. On April 25th, Wisker was acquitted. The emotional toll on the man was clearly evident as the jury read the verdict. He was described as “on the verge of nervous collapse” and “he trembled so violently that he had to be helped to his feet by [his lawyer]”. “He is but a shadow of the big sturdy fellow who was arrested the day of the fatal collision in the Park avenue tunnel.”

It would be nice to know that this man lived a long and productive life after this ordeal. However, in 1909, a work-related accident claimed John M. Wisker’s life. He was age 40. At least he lived long enough to see the beginnings of electric service, and the start of construction on the new Grand Central, both results of the crash in 1902.

Read More

Friday’s From the Historical Archive: 1902 Park Avenue Tunnel Wreck Paves the Way for Electric Service

Recently I’ve been having a lot of fun poring over the history of the Harlem Line and trains in the area. I mentioned a few weeks ago a new part of the site called the Historical Archives. When it first opened the Historical Archives had a few timetables, maps and newspaper articles. Now it contains well over a hundred different entries. I must thank the folks at the Research Library at the Danbury Railway Museum because many of the timetables in the Archive come from their collection. I figured that in addition to my normal blogging of current events and craziness, I shall from here forward designate Friday as Historical Archive day, and I will be posting an article about something interesting about this history of the Harlem Line. The navigation at the top of the site changed slightly, in order to accommodate the new category, called History.

To kick it all off, I thought it may be interesting to post about the 1902 Park Avenue Tunnel wreck. Trains today are relatively safe, however in the past there were many dangers, and many people died over the course of history…

Above are just some of the headlines of newspaper articles now in the Historical Archives. On January 8th 1902 the worst train wreck in New York City’s history occurred underground in the Park Avenue Tunnel. The tunnel had originally been built in 1876 to make Manhattan safer by removing the tracks from aboveground. However low visibility in the darkness, and especially the smoke from coal-burning locomotives, made the tunnel quite hazardous. This was not the first wreck in the tunnel: accidents had occurred in 1891, where six people were killed, and 1882, where two people lost their lives.

At first, the engineer John M. Wisker was blamed for the accident. He had missed several signals, and he was controlling the train that slammed into the train in front of it. Ultimately, Wisker was acquitted – the dangers and low visibility in the tunnel was to blame for the crash. Fifteen people died as an immediate result of the crash, and several others died in the hospital shortly after. The deaths, however, were not in vain: they provided the final push for electric service on the line, and led to the replacement of Grand Central Depot. It was reborn as the Grand Central Terminal that we know today, and opened in 1913. The first regular service on the new electrified line ran to White Plains in 1910, an article of which also appears in the archive.

If you are interested in learning more about the Park Avenue Tunnel Wreck of 1902, and the influence on Grand Central, you should certainly check out Grand Central, a part of PBS’s American Experience, which is viewable online.

Read More