The Malbone Street Wreck
by Brian Cudahy
Reviewed by Paul Matus Page 4
At the very beginning of the book, Cudahy puts the
Malbone Street Wreck into a similar context with the Lindburgh
Kidnapping and the Sinking of the Titanic, notable events of the first
half of the 20th century, and events from which he and his family drew
important lessons. There is a broad social and political context in New
York in which to place the Malbone Street Wreck, but I'm not certain
Cudahy has achieved this.
He seems to be
striving to set down the sequence of events as dispassionately as
possible, as though he were writing findings of fact in a court of
history. He chooses among explanations for a particular happening, not
always accounting for other theories. Now and then he simply ignores
issues that figured prominently in contemporary accounts but proved of
little moment later. Most significantly he does not expand upon
some of the events and personalities on which he touches, which might have
added richness to the story and a broader historical
So to whom is this book most likely
It is a treasure trove for the
person, especially the rail or urban history buff, who already knows
something about the accident, but who is frustrated looking for the pieces
of the puzzle that make up the complete story of the wreck. For these
readers, Cudahy takes them to the scene, so the speak, and fills in most
of the blank spaces.
He does especially well
in dispelling the wilder rumors that have become urban folklore over the
decades, especially the ridiculous "electrocution" tale, which had fully a
quarter of the passengers who died surviving the initial crash, only to be
electrocuted by foolhardy power plant workers. This, among other hoary
tales, Cudahy disposes of neatly.
average reader, the one who might pick up a tale of the Titanic or
the fate of the Donner Party, might it prove a little dry? It would
be interesting to see how such a person reacts to the book. Would they be
disappointed, prefering instead the colorful lies that have served for 80
years, or might they hunger to learn even more?
I have one argument with the book that I suspect is not Cudahy's
doing at all. The dustjacket blurb asks "Could another Malbone Street Wreck
happen at some future time in New York, or on any
other U.S. mass-transit system?" I suspect the question may have been posed
by a publicist writing the blurb rather by than the author. The answer is to
be found by "[t]ransit professionals [...] after they
read Cudahy's account", we are told, so I thought that the
question would be directly addressed in the
Since I have an opinion on this
question, I looked forward to the final chapter to see whether
Cudahy and I had the same point of view, so I was disappointed to find
nothing at all that addressed the issue.
what is the answer to the question? Certainly the exact conditions of the
wreck could not be duplicated today: wooden cars have been banned from
passenger service in subway tunnels for decades, automatic tripping
devices are universal, downhill runs are "grade timed." There are no union
insurgencies to split striking from non-striking employees and the system
simply shuts down in a polite and orderly fashion if a strike does occur.
Does this mean we are now safe?
question should be couched differently: Could a deadly wreck involving an
out-of-control train operator, lax supervision on many levels, a disregard
of safe operating procedures, and equipment of doubtful structural integrity happen in
the modern world? It already has. It was called the Union
Square Wreck, and it occurred in 1991, 73 years after we should have learned the
lessons of Malbone Street.