John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
A sad tale of extremely poor transportation planning.
For all the monorail enthusiasts out there just now learning that New York once had its own single-track wonder, put your excitement on hold. For on this date in 1910, during its inaugural journey, the monorail lurched over, sending scores of people to the hospital.
The painful incident can be traced to the slick salesmanship of one Howard Tunis, who did so well demonstrating his novel design for an electric monorail at a 1907 exposition in Virginia that he gained the attention of the Interborough Rapid Transit Company. The IRT, the original operator of New York's subway line, asked Tunis if he could assemble a similar prototype for use up north. That the inventor did, and soon enough it was ready on a track stretching from a railroad station on the borough's mainland a short distance down to City Island.
Tunis' monorail was nothing fancy—it certainly was no Bennie Railplane—running on a one-wheel system below and double wheels above. With only one car and duckling-yellow paint, it was almost cute. And indeed, during a few test runs before its official debut the monorail ran swimmingly. The problem was that it hadn't been tested at full capacity. Had it, the operators might have noticed that during curves the weight of the passengers caused the car to tilt, putting the wooden superstructure guiding the car under deep strain.
On July 16, more than 100 people showed up for the system's first fully packed journey. They crowded into the little car, whose normal occupancy was 40, no doubt holding items for the refreshing swim they expected at City Island. The rail car made two curves before hell broke loose. On the third curve, it tilted and ripped through the superstructure, causing all the chairs in the car to dislodge and go flying. Then, because the track was laid on what the media deemed a "bed of dust," the car dug into the ground.
The spikes holding the iron uprights supporting the superstructure by means of which the car is held steady on the monorail tore out of the wooden ties, and amid the screams of the imprisoned passengers the car fell over on its side, resting against one of the thin, lathe-shaped uprights supporting the superstructure. The upright, though it bent, did not snap.
If it had snapped the car would have rolled over and over down a four-foot embankment and many of its hundred passengers would have been either killed or badly injured. As it was the passengers were thrown on on top of the other on the floor of the car, so that they lay literally in layers when the car was opened to let them out. In the jam many suffered painful injuries.
To make matters worse the conductor, fearing that overhanging electric lines might fall and zap people, immediately auto-locked all the doors. That meant everybody was squished like a layer cake for 10 minutes while dealing with their various wounds, which according to the Times' included contusions, a broken leg, "crushed" nose, "smashed" left finger, bruised face, and "cuts on face from being thrown face forward against a window." Howard Tunis, who was acting as motorman, himself suffered a broken rib. Like a true monorail fanatic, he later met reporters from his hospital bed and "discussed his invention enthusiastically and seemed to regard the accident as merely one of those minor mishaps which occur daily in every scientist's laboratory."
The unfortunate episode spelled the beginning of the end for New York's monorail. The entity operating it, the Pelham Bay Park and City Island Memorial Company, was blasted in the press for disregarding safety standards in a rush to build the track. The monorail reopened a few months later but bad business soon forced the company operating it into bankruptcy, and the Bronx's little engine that couldn't went dark on April 3, 1914.
A couple photos from the Library of Congress show the monorail in its happier hours:
For what it's worth, the accident was not the end of the monorail in New York, exactly. In the 1930s, a firm helmed by one Frank S. Lyon looked into building a nearly noiseless, 45 mph-trucking one using duralumin, a "light airship alloy," according to Popular Science Monthly. The project never made it past the blueprint stage, but here are sketches illustrating what might have been: