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North Station Crash, 1917

On August 31, 1917, the brakes failed on a wooden elevated coach, and the train smashed into the dead-end bumper at old North Station. The operator tried frantically to stop the train, and at the last moment warned the passengers to brace for a collision. The safety bumper at the end of the structure prevented the train from crashing down onto Causeway Street. Eighteen people were injured, none seriously.

The original Main Line Elevated (Orange Line) was built from Dudley Street, Roxbury to Sullivan Square, Charlestown. An elevated branch above Atlantic Avenue connected South Station to North Station (the line closed in 1938). At North Station, a dead-end platform existed above Causeway Street at the east end of Boston Garden. Passengers could transfer to the old Lechmere elevated line or travel via elevated walkways directly into North Station. The old Atlantic Avenue line platform existed at North Station until about 1978. It is fortunate that the doomed train in 1917 was not traveling faster, or the accident could have easily caused fatalities (on the train, along the walkways, or even pedestrians walking in the street below).

The August 31, 1917 Boston Globe describes the crash: "Eighteen persons were injured at 5:30 yesterday afternoon, when a shuttle train on the Elevated became unmanageable in front of the North Station and crashed into a bumper. But for the bumper, which was demolished, [the] two-coach train would have plunged through a thin iron fence and then down into Causeway st, 30 feet below. Fortunately the bumper stopped the wild train, and the majority of the 150 passengers escaped with nothing more serious than a bad scare and a shaking.

Nearly a score of the passengers were taken to the Relief Hospital, where they were treated for injuries, which ranged from mental shock to broken bones. No one was really seriously injured, and aside from a few broken windows and some splintered wood on the train, the worst damage was that done to the bumper itself.

Crash Comes at Rush Hour

The accident happened during the rush hour, and the shuttle train, operating between the South and North stations on the L, was packed. The noise of the crash could be heard for blocks. Every available ambulance was rushed to the scene, it being believed at first that many of the passengers had been hurt seriously.

The exact cause of the accident is uncertain.

According to passengers, the motorman, George J. Donnelly, did everything in his power to prevent it, but the brakes did not work. Passengers seen at the station and at the Relief Hospital all said that when the train was about 30 feet from the bumper, Donnelly, who had been trying frantically to work the brakes, stopped from his box into the front car crying, 'Stand back! Stand back! I can't stop her! The brakes don't work.' The next thing the passengers knew there was a flash and an explosion in the front of the forward car, and then a terrific crash.

Panic Follows Crash

Wild confusion followed, Men broke windows in a mad scramble to get out of the two cars, and trampled over women and children, Everyone fought his or her neighbor in an effort to get somewhere other than where he or she happed to be.

Guard Charles Winter, who was between the two cars when the crash came, quickly opened the side doors of both cars, allowing the pushing, screaming mass humanity to fight its way to the platform.

The two cars were crowded. Each seated 48 persons, and each had as many more persons standing. At every stop from the South Station on, crowds of home-goers had jammed themselves into the two coaches. Car 029 With motorman Donnelly, was ahead, and car 044 was hitched behind. The train moved along at a fair rate of speed, it is said. As it drew into the North Station platform, however, it was noted that it did not seem to slacken speed much. Passengers standing near the motorman’s box saw him frantically pulling at something over his head.

Women Passengers Alarmed

Then came what many women passengers believe was an explosion in the front of car 029, but which men passengers say was simply a fuse blowing out. This gave the passengers, particularly the women, a preliminary shock. Several of them screamed and jumped from their seats. Just then the motorman leaped from his box, crying: 'Stand back!' This alarmed everyone and the interior of the forward car became a scene of wild struggling.

Then came the crash as the car bit the bumper, tearing away its woodwork and bending its iron supports double. It seemed for a second as though the car had left the track. Then there was a second, milder shock, the recoil, and the train stopped. The motorman's box was partially wrecked. Donnelly escaped injury, as did Guard Winter. Within a couple of minutes after the crash the first ambulances were on the scene and the injured were being carried down stairs and placed in them Shortly afterwards the wrecked train was towed away An inquiry into the cause of the accident probably will take place today."

Historical Location:

North Station Crash Site 
Causeway and Canal Streets, Boston, MA 02118

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