Illustration by Ben Sanders
Illustration by Ben Sanders

A transit disaster hits New York City like a heart attack. On Dec. 1, four people died when a Metro-North Railroad train derailed. Explosions, collisions and derailments have shadowed travel in New York since the inception of the transit system two centuries ago and the search for explanations has often tapped into larger fears.

The vast network was largely created by private parties -- most notably Cornelius Vanderbilt, who owned the track upon which this week’s accident occurred. In 1867, he incorporated the Spuyten Duyvil and Port Morris Railroad, and connected the Hudson River and Harlem railroads. Vanderbilt also has a tie to New York’s last great transit disaster: the 2003 Staten Island Ferry crash, which killed 11 passengers. The line was created by Vanderbilt in 1860.

Early transportation accidents fostered a dread of new technology. On May 15, 1824, the steamboat Aetna exploded spectacularly in New York harbor, slaughtering perhaps a dozen people (reporting on the accident was imprecise). Afterward, transit passengers experienced what one man called “the lurking fear that we might burst the boilers.”

This anxiety was counterbalanced by the demand for faster travel. The public had a “fever” for the first railroads, the press reported, despite a spate of accidents. Even Vanderbilt, who went on to become a leader in the railroad industry, was involved in a train accident. On Nov. 8, 1833, a train operated by the Camden and Amboy Railroad derailed in New Jersey, killing two passengers and severely injuring Vanderbilt, then 39. Another passenger, John Quincy Adams, wasn’t harmed.

Blaming Business

As disasters multiplied, critics blamed an unbridled business culture. In the antebellum era, a risk-taking, competitive spirit swamped the city’s genteel merchant community, and scrappy transportation entrepreneurs pioneered this ethos.

New York’s steamboats led the way. Ferry lines engaged in fare wars and passengers gave their allegiance to rival steamers that raced one another across New York Harbor. On June 1, 1825, the captain of the Legislator (a name that made for better marketing then) ordered his crew to win the morning’s run to New Jersey. One of the crewmen held down the boiler’s safety valve to build up pressure. The boiler exploded, killing four.

“It is hardly worthwhile to attempt keeping any account of the steamboat disasters which are daily and almost hourly occurring,” one newspaper complained. Philip Hone, a one-time mayor of New York, wrote in his diary, “We have become the most reckless, headlong people on the face of the earth. ‘Go ahead’ is our maxim and password; and we do go ahead with a vengeance, regardless of the consequences and indifferent about the value of human life.”

As the economy changed around the time of the Civil War, so did the explanations for accidents. Large corporations replaced striving individual proprietors, and criticism began to shift to these impersonal institutions.

In the 1870s, New York’s largest enterprise was the New York Central and Hudson Railroad, controlled by Vanderbilt. Its capitol was Grand Central Depot; after it was completed in 1871, increased train traffic along Fourth Avenue led to accidents and public outcry. In editorials and letters from readers, the New York Times turned the image of locomotives running down pedestrians into an unsubtle metaphor for the corporation crushing the individual. One reader typically denounced “the usurpations of the great monopoly.”

By 1876, with a mix of public and corporate money, Vanderbilt had buried the tracks along Fourth Avenue in a tunnel. This made the formerly gritty thoroughfare desirable. It is now Park Avenue.

When 15 people died in a collision in the Park Avenue Tunnel on Jan. 8, 1902, railroad corporations had become an accepted part of the city’s economy. Instead of attacking business, the debate addressed technical issues, leading to the electrification of the rail line.

Modern Disasters

Today, New York’s transit system is one of the largest in the world, and mostly public. Given the millions who ride the city’s trains, buses and ferries, lethal accidents are remarkably rare. Our response to disasters has shifted again, focusing on the competence of government and individual responsibility.

The sharp decline in frequency makes accidents such as the Metro-North derailment all the more stunning. I was a passenger on the Staten Island Ferry when it crashed in 2003. The impact was disorienting and sparked a brief panic even on the upper deck, where I was. A passenger raced up from the lower deck, where the deaths occurred, and told us the boat was sinking. It wasn’t, but the overwhelmed crew made no announcements, leaving us adrift, in every sense, for long minutes before the vessel docked. Only later did I learn the extent of the tragedy that had occurred beneath my feet. Whatever lessons we try to draw from these accidents, their true weight is known only to the injured and the grieving.

(T.J. Stiles won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for “The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt.” He is currently writing a biography of George Armstrong Custer.)

To contact the writer of this article: T.J. Stiles at tjstiles@tjstiles.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Alex Bruns at abruns@bloomberg.net.