Cincinnati’s Old-Time Streetcars Were Notorious Death Machines

How cheap streetcar companies caused years of bloodshed on the streets.
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The headline over this illustration of a deadly streetcar said it all: “While English Corporations Safeguard Lives, Americans Pay Enormous Sums In Damages.”

IMAGE EXTRACTED FROM MICROFILM BY GREG HAND

Cincinnati’s commuters have complained about mass transit since the first horse-drawn omnibuses started hauling passengers in 1859. By the late 1880s, the Queen City offered a selection of transport systems, from steam-powered inclines to equine-powered horsecars that struggled to ascend the city’s hills to a couple of cable-car routes on Vine Street and Gilbert Avenue. Each had its detractors.

It appeared that a new age dawned in 1889, when the Kilgour brothers introduced electric street cars as a replacement for horsecars and cable cars. The newfangled trolleys zipped up Cincinnati’s steepest hills, obviating the need to add auxiliary horse or mule teams on the steeper routes. The electric cars required far less maintenance than the cable cars that often, literally, froze up on icy winter days.

Despite their contemporary styling and innovative power systems, the new electric street cars had one small but persistent drawback. They killed lots of people.

The years 1906 and 1907 were particularly bloody along Cincinnati’s streetcar lines. The Cincinnati Post [21 March 1907] tallied 22 fatalities caused by streetcars in 1906 and an additional 13 deaths in the first three months of 1907.

The Post’s report coincided with a national exposé titled “The Needless Slaughter by Street Cars” in the nationally distributed Everybody’s Magazine.  Journalist and author John P. Fox slammed transit monopolies in cities across the United States for their dismal and deadly safety records. According to Fox:

“If along every mile of street railway track in the United States a headstone was raised for every death by accident the routes we travel would resemble one long drawn-out cemetery.”

A Bellevue, Kentucky, streetcar, bound for Cincinnati, jumped the tracks and tumbled down a hill, killing three and injuring 23 in 1901.

IMAGE EXTRACTED FROM MICROFILM BY GREG HAND

Cincinnati’s death records and morgue records as preserved at the University of Cincinnati Archives support Fox’s contention. More than a hundred deaths between 1890 and 1910 are documented in these files as being caused directly or indirectly by street cars. There was 57-year-old Martha Fuchs, who died from injuries on 19 September 1908 after falling from a crowded streetcar. There was five-year-old Philomena Armenti, run over by a streetcar in 1906. And a physician, Dr. Edward Schaefer, 44 years old, who succumbed to injuries caused by a streetcar collision.

The streetcar companies and their employees regularly blamed the victims for carelessness. The Cincinnati Enquirer [1 September 1894] printed the complaint of a streetcar driver regarding pedestrians during rush hour:

“We don’t run 60 miles an hour, but you can kill a man just as quick at 12 miles an hour, and it shakes you up just as much. There isn’t a gripman but dreads to make the downtown loop during rush hours.”

And those were just the fatalities! Little Florien Bercheit was only five years old when he fell under the wheels of a streetcar. His legs were so mangled they were both amputated and he lived the rest of his years supported by crutches while dragging two wooden stumps along the streets. James Bennett, known as “Big Fiddle,” was a city street inspector, knocked by a passing streetcar into an open excavation in 1907 and paralyzed for life.

Fox’s exposé in Everybody’s Magazine blamed electric street cars in general, but the Post noticed that Cincinnati’s streetcars were far deadlier than those of cities of larger size.

“London is 14 times as large as Cincinnati, yet against the slaughter of 22 in Cincinnati, the biggest city in the world shows on its death roll that only 10 were killed by the surface street cars in 1906.”

According to the Post, Cincinnati’s death toll was the result of greedy traction companies interested in profit at the expense of human life and health.

“Traction companies prefer dividends to the saving of human life. They get fenders such as they use in Cincinnati, which have been declared humbugs by high railroad officials in the United States; they use primitive brakes; they employ inexperienced men; they drive competent motormen away from them by low salaries.”

The quality of “fenders” or guards mounted around the wheels of the streetcar was a particular sore spot to the Post. Streetcar motormen involved in fatal accidents were routinely charged with manslaughter, but the Post found no record that anyone was ever convicted. Instead, the traction company lawyers placed the blame squarely on the victim and the courts never investigated whether better safety fenders or less-crowded cars could have prevented the death.

James Hall, driver on the Price Hill line, complained about the condition of his car when it left the garage on 30 December 1906 for its morning run. His supervisors ignored his observation that the brakes were faulty. Hours later, that car hurtled down Warsaw Avenue as motorman Hall lost control of the vehicle, his brakes entirely useless. The car, containing 38 passengers, accelerated until it reached a hairpin turn halfway down the slope and jumped the tracks, tumbling through the air into the side of the hill. Four people died and 20 were hospitalized. The runaway car crashed into a hillside covered in wet mud, which cushioned the impact and prevented even more fatalities.

Although the driver complained his car’s brakes were faulty, the traction company sent it out on the Warsaw Avenue hill anyway. Four passengers died and 20 were injured.

IMAGE EXTRACTED FROM MICROFILM BY GREG HAND

Another major streetcar crash with multiple fatalities occurred when a Cincinnati-bound car jumped the tracks in Bellevue, Kentucky and tumbled down a steep hill on 15 February 1901. An inspector blamed the accident on morning frost making the rails at a tight turn too slippery. The transit company blamed officials in Bellevue and Newport for refusing to build a viaduct to bypass the dangerous turn.

Although big crashes made the headlines, most injuries and fatalities involved single individuals. In fact, the same edition of the paper that carried the news of the Bellevue accident reported the death of four-year-old William Crary of Baymiller Street. Attempting to cross the road, he was struck by a streetcar and “horribly mutilated.” Young William died en route to the hospital.

As automobiles became popular in the 1920s, they caused so many traffic deaths that Cincinnati’s abundant streetcar fatalities faded from memory.

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