On This Day In 1916, The Unthinkable Happened In Massachusetts
On November 7, 1916, almost 50 commuters plummeted to their death in the heart of downtown Boston. And almost no one remembers that it happened.
Boston has seen its fair share of other disasters – the 1919 molasses flood may be the strangest on record – including other trolley disasters, such as the Forest Hills Tragedy (pictured below). However, the 1916 Boston Trolley Disaster disaster seems to have disappeared from the city’s memory. There are no plaques or signs marking the site, and it doesn’t show up in the curriculum of Boston’s students. Why has this horrific loss of life been scrubbed so thoroughly out of the city’s narrative?
All seemed normal on the afternoon of the November 7. Commuters hopped on streetcar 393, driven by Gerald Walsh, and cruised through the city on their way back from work. The car collected about 60 passengers on its way, moving between 10 to 15 miles an hour.
When Walsh reached a drawbridge by the Melcher Street intersection, he slowed – without stopping – to let one last passenger aboard. Perhaps that is why he didn’t see the sign that read STOP. Maybe if he had stopped the car as required, he would have been going slow enough to avoid the disaster to come.
Too late, Walsh saw the metal gates blocking the road ahead. The drawbridge was up, but Walsh could not stop the car in time. He yanked the brakes as hard as possible, and screamed at the passengers to jump from the car.
The riders fortunate enough to be sitting near the front were able to see what was going on and leap to safety. Those in the back were not so lucky – they had almost no notice before the trolley slid off the end of the bridge and began its agonizing slide toward the cold water below.
The stories from the disaster are absolutely heartbreaking. It was a cold day, and the woolen coats that were so in fashion at that time acted like reverse life-preservers, dragging those in the water under the black current.
The accident tore families apart, and cut short so many young lives. Running late, John Macaluso missed boarding the doomed car by mere moments. His brother had been on time and was able to snag a seat. For the next several decades, Macaluso had to face his commute alone, riding along the same route that had been his brother’s last journey.
Local car dealership magnate Herb Chambers actually would not be around were it not for the survival of passenger Nelson McFarlane. After escaping with his life from the trolley disaster (and rescuing two other passengers), McFarlane opened a successful bar and restaurant, from which his nephew Herb was later fired for lateness. Forced to find another career path, the 21-year-old went on to become one of the Boston area’s most recognizable billboard personalities.
Car 393 was repaired and placed back into service, but it had become known as the “Death Car.” No one was willing to operate it. Instead, the car was recruited to help with demolition and maintenance along the rail lines.
Gerland Walsh did not return to his streetcar driving position. Instead, he went on to serve in World War I and eventually began working for the Elevated once more, before collapsing from a blood clot at the age of 41. Those who knew him claim that he was forever haunted by the disaster.
To get a sense of what Boston looked like during this time period, check out this rare trolley-ride footage of the city’s downtown from 1904, only 12 years before the trolley disaster occurred: