book review

The Malbone Street Wreck  
by Brian Cudahy


ISBN:  0-8232-1931-3
Title: Malbone Street Wreck
Author:  Brian J. Cudahy
Publisher:  Fordham University Press
Date Published:  August 1999
Format:  Trade Cloth (Hardbound), 144 pp.
Also Available:  Trade Paper (Paperback), 144 pp.

A Measured Account
of the Worst Rapid Transit Tragedy

Reviewed by Paul Matus

On November 1, 1918, a five car wood-bodied elevated train on the Brighton Beach Line of the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Co. smashed into the wall of a recently opened tunnel at the intersection of Malbone Street and Flatbush Avenue, killing, all told, about 100 people. This wreck, the worst rapid transit accident in U.S. history, imprinted itself on the consciousness of the people of Brooklyn and far beyond.
     When I was growing up in Flatbush in the '50s, folks were still talking about "Malbone Street." Though the tragedy was almost four decades past, it was still a topic of conversation, as there was hardly a Flatbush family that was untouched. If one of your own was not on that fateful run, you knew a neighbor, a co-worker, a friend, who was.
     Not too much had been published about the wreck at mid-century, save for the occasional tabloid-style horror story. In the decades since a number of books have included sections on Malbone Street, including Cudahy's own Under the Sidewalks of New York and Stan Fischler's The Subway. The two accounts represented polar opposites in Malbone Street reporting, Cudahy's was quietly factual, while Fischler's was colorful but contained wild inaccuracies.
     Any discussion of the Malbone Street Accident among rail or history buffs has thus tended to be a frustrating one, as those who have done some independent research often find themselves spending more time refuting popular misconceptions of the facts of the incident than in discussing the facts themselves.
     So it was with considerable anticipation that I received the news, several months ago, that Fordham U. Press would soon release Brian Cudahy's full-length book on Malbone Street. Cudahy has written a number of books on rapid transit subjects and I know him to be a careful researcher who would, I expected, tell the story as it happened, answer the reasonable questions that have been around for 80 years, and firmly reject the doubtful research, gossip and just entertaining lies which have crept into the historical narrative.
     Has he succeeded? By the standard I've set above, he has.
     Yet the author cautions us that “[t]his is not a definitive account” because “too much remains unknown, too much lies beyond my grasp, and too many questions are answered imperfectly." Cudahy was especially disappointed that, despite extensive effort, he could not find the trial transcripts which could have shed additional light on the subject. He has had to take educated guesses on some subjects, and in other cases chooses between competing stories. I do not agree with all his choices, and think others bear further examination, and I would like to have known how he reached some of his conclusions in cases where he does not mention alternate explanations.

Continued on page 2






The Malbone Street train sits in the BRT's 36th St. Yard after salvage. The relatively minor damage to 726 shows why most in the first car escaped serious injuy. Even the window of Motorman Luciano's cab (left, front) is intact. Not so lucky were those in trailer car 80 immediately behind, with half the car sheared away. Behind 80 is motor car 725, also almost unscathed. Chillingly absent between 80 and 725 would have been car 100, the remains of which were dismantled at the scene.    Paul Matus Collection

Also see:

A Few Historical Errors in Cudahy's The Malbone Street Wreck , by Alan D. Glick

Capsule Review, by C.K. Leverett

"The Malbone Street Wreck" at nycsubway.org, which transcribes the New York Times article that appeared Novemeber 2, 1918, the morning after the wreck. Note especially that important details of the wreck are in error in the newspaper account, especially that the first car (which emerged light damaged—see picture above) bore the brunt of the damage and fatalities.

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