The 1903 Fort George Subway Tunnel Disaster

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The tunnel with its long row of dimly shining electric bulbs becomes a banging, hissing, vibrating pandemonium; a dozen compressed-air drills thud away in all directions, with boys pouring water into the drill holes, and Italians scrape and shovel away the debris at the bottom of the slowly disappearing wall.” (The World’s Work, Vol. III, 1901)

Tunneling the subway through Fort George Hill, The Century Illustrated Magazine, 1902.
Tunneling the subway through Fort George Hill, The Century Illustrated Magazine, 1902.

October 24, 1903

Timothy Sullivan glanced at his watch. It was minutes before ten o’clock. The sliver of a new moon dangled above the camp.

Back to work boys,” the Irishman shouted as he gestured toward the ragged hole at the base of Fort George Hill.

Sullivan, a construction foreman for New York’s ambitious subway system, was in charge of the northern end of a deep tunnel project that would soon stream mass transit riders beneath Washington Heights.  The tunnel would forever change the rural nature of northern Manhattan—with its stables, red brick schoolhouse and quaint country church.  Soon the farm-strewn Inwood valley would be connected to downtown. Speculators were already erecting apartment houses along Dyckman Street.

The project was a tremendous endeavor.  Miners with work experience all over the world signed on for the job.  They spoke in underground jargon and swapped tales of operations in Colorado, Johannesburg, the Klondike and Siberia.  Not one of the men referred to the work before them as a tunnel—below ground everyone called it the “mine.”   When completed it would be the second largest two-track tunnel ever constructed in the United States—surpassed only by the Hoosac tunnel in western Massachusetts.

Fort George tunnel, 1904, NYHS.
Fort George tunnel, 1904, NYHS.
Fort George tunnel, 1904, NYHS.
Fort George tunnel, 1904, NYHS.

The dangerous conditions created by the unpredictable Hudson schist—called “bastard granite” by the workers—and recent heavy rains, caused all sorts of delays.  Three crews worked round-the-clock, in eight-hour shifts, to make up lost time.   General contractor John B. McDonald took a personal interest in the work. McDonald was familiar with the region, having attended Public School 52, just blocks from the tunnel entrance.

Map and elevation diagram of NYC subway, circa 1904. (Click on image to enlarge)
Map and elevation diagram of NYC subway, circa 1904. (Click on image to enlarge)

The forty-five-year-old foreman’s orders carried his crew south from 200th Street—digging, drilling and blasting their way though some of the most unforgiving rock in Manhattan as two teams worked on separate sections up from 157th Street.  With any luck the three tubes would connect sometime around Christmas.  That October evening the two northern ends were separated by only 500 feet of rock.

It was a Saturday night and the gang of mostly Italian drillers, muckers and cleaners had just finished their supper break. Italians, along with Irish immigrants, represented the backbone of the subway dig—now entering its fourth year.  A common laborer might earn as little at twenty cents an hour, but tunnel duty offered hazard pay.  Some in Sullivan’s crew likely earned more than three dollars a day—at least twice as much as ­workers who toiled in other parts of the system.

Fort George tunnel, 1904, NYHS.
Fort George tunnel, 1904, NYHS.

The previous spring, when 4,000 striking Italian workers protested wages as low as  $1.87 for a ten hour day, the system’s largest sub-contractor, Michael Degnon, responded: “I will not give them one penny more under any circumstances and I will not reduce the working day one hour…we have in Maryland, working for us on the Wabash railroad, 4,000 negroes.  If necessary I will bring these men to New York, secure the best quarters for them on the negro side of town and put them in the places of these Italians.”  (New York Sun, May 8, 1903)

Fort George tunnel, 1904, NYHS.
Fort George tunnel, 1904, NYHS.

A difficult life presented itself to the laborers who lived in shanties up and down the construction lines. Some compared the Fort George area to mining towns in the Wild West.  Below ground the workers sweated alongside horses and mules used pull rock-laden tramcars to the tunnel mouth.  An army of rats rounded out the menagerie.

As the twenty-man gang entered the tunnel mouth they began “sounding” the rock—tapping on the walls and ceiling with their miner’s hammers to make certain the roof above them was stable.  Earlier, while the crew ate dinner, three small explosive charges, about two pounds of dynamite, were detonated some 1,000 feet down the line where the tunnel ended 110-feet beneath the surface of 195th Street.

Fort George tunnel, 1904, NYHS.
Fort George tunnel, 1904, NYHS.

The foreman and his twenty-year-old electrician, William Scheutte, were the first to enter the blast site.  The German electrician carried with him a string of incandescent lamps to light the way as the team worked past the heavy support timbers that lined the route.

Fort George tunnel,1904, NYHS.
Fort George tunnel,1904, NYHS.

Charles Crocker and Matthew Hargreaves, African American laborers who brought up the rear, heard a frightening rumble just minutes after they entered the tunnel.

Go back, quick, the ceiling is going to fall!” they heard Sullivan shout before they were blown to the ground by a rush of wind.

Climbing to their feet the men scrambled toward the tunnel entrance and sprinted to the nearby Speedway Livery Stables where a telephone was used to sound the alarm.

Minutes later Dyckman Street came alive.  A stream of ambulances, fire wagons and volunteers swarmed the tunnel mouth—the scene reminiscent of a coal mining disaster with workers trapped in a subterranean hell.

Tunnel entrance in 1905, NYHS.
Tunnel entrance in 1905, NYHS.

A small band of individuals that included several surviving workers, Edward Cunniffe and John McGowan, both doctors from Fordham Hospital, a policeman named Dempsey and Rev. Thomas Lynch, from St. Elizabeth’s Church on 187th Street, volunteered to enter the tunnel to search for survivors.

Is there anyone here who speaks both English and Italian,” shouted the sixty-year old clergyman.

I can talk a little English, Padre,” a red-shirted Italian replied.  The frightened young man was concerned that his brother might be one of the workers trapped in the collapse.

Then come with me and see what the poor fellow would say,” responded the black-robed Irish priest.

Firemen warned against entering the tunnel.

Policeman Dempsey led the rescuers by the dim glow of a lantern commandeered from an arriving ambulance.

Five hundred feet into the darkness the group encountered a horrific scene.

A split second after Sullivan’s frantic scream a giant rock later determined to measure 44-feet-long, four to five feet thick and weighing some 300 tons, had fallen from the ceiling.

A pile of the “bastard granite,” timber and construction debris blocked the rescuer’s path.  Workers, bodies twisted and crushed, hung grotesquely from the mass.

The cries of the dying echoed through the darkness.  Newspapers described a “ghastly chamber of death.” (New York Times, October 26, 1903)

1903 New York Herald, October 26,  1903.
1903 New York Herald, October 26, 1903.

Father Lynch, a white-haired Roman Catholic priest with kindly blue eyes and a ruddy face, quickly worked his way to survivor Alfonzo Annetello whose crushed leg was trapped inside the pile.

The mass of rock and timbers was perhaps fifteen feet high,” the Times account continued.  “Water dropped upon it from the roof, and little rivulets of blood ran down the side.  Heedless of warnings, Father Lynch made his way up the slippery incline to reach the dying man at the top.” (New York Times, October 26,1903)

Kyrie eleison,” Lynch intoned softly as he pressed an ivory cross to the man’s quivering lips.  The priest recited the litany of the dead as the young Italian struggled to remain conscience.

When Father Lynch was finished the two Fordham doctors hastily amputated Annetello’s leg.  They then placed the body on a tram and ran alongside the car attempting to bandage the stump as they raced to the tunnel entrance.  The worker was taken by ambulance to Lebanon Hospital where he died at 2:45 that morning.

By this time police reserves and firemen had arrived to assist in the rescue and recovery.

 “Watch out for the rock! Some more will be killed if you aren’t careful,” policemen warned arriving volunteers.

 Cries and groans from under the mass of stone,” a reporter wrote, “worked many into a nervous excitement, in which they were prepared to undertake any danger to render assistance to the imprisoned.”(New York Daily Tribune, October 26, 1903)

After the amputation victim had been taken out, rescuers, using hydraulic jacks, began the heartrending extraction of three other survivors.

The three others were standing on a ledge under the semicircular roof when it fell, and apparently had fallen or thrown themselves forward,” wrote one journalist.   “As they pitched headfirst toward the floor their feet were pinioned under a mass of rock, holding them midway between the top and bottom of the tunnel.  They dangled with their heads down and blood pouring from their crushed feet and ankles over their bodies.  All were conscious, and alternately shrieked and prayed for aid.  Their cries maddened the rescuers who worked furiously to get at them, but the piles of rock that blocked the way made that out of the question.”

New York Herald, October 26, 1903.
New York Herald, October 26, 1903.

As the men hung there,” the account continued, “beating the air with their hands and every few minutes struggling to draw themselves up from their reversed position by gripping their legs until the additional pain and weakness compelled them to let go, men who saw and heard them sobbed like children.  The three laborers at last realized they were close to death and alternated their screams for relief with appeals for a priest.” (New York Press, October 25, 1903)

Doctors administered morphine to ease the pain.

After blasting the giant boulder into smaller and more manageable pieces, rescuers pried survivor Juno Baski loose from the pile.  He was taken by ambulance to Fordham Hospital.  Several other Italians, buried under tons of rock and shale, had been crushed beyond recognition.

New York  Tribune, October 26, 1903.
New York Tribune, October 26, 1903.

By midnight a large crowd had gathered near the tunnel mouth.

The wives of the dead and injured congregated in the darkness,” the New York Press reported, “venturing as far into the dimly lighted interior as they dared and gazing fixedly at the body of each workman as it was brought to the entrance on the tram car.” (New York Press, October 26, 1903)

New York Times, October 26, 1903.
New York Times, October 26, 1903.

The ten-year-old son of foreman Timothy Sullivan, who arrived around 3:00 am, became the most enduring face of the tragedy.

Get away, boy,” a policeman told the youngster after catching him in the tunnel, “there’s still danger here.”

No, I won’t,” the boy shot back undeterred, “Father’s in there and I’ll stay here until you get him out.”  (New York Daily Tribune, October 26, 1903)

Around six that morning the body of Sullivan’s young electrician, William Scheutte was discovered near the tunnel face.

He lay on his side,” read one account,  “his shoulders, chest and legs horribly mashed and twisted, although his face had escaped disfiguration.” (New York Tribune, October 26, 1903)

Scheutte’s step-brother, Joseph Weckisfer, a patrolman attached to the 152nd Street Station, collapsed in the street when he was told that William’s body had been placed in an empty cell inside the stationhouse.

The body of Timothy Sullivan, the Irish foreman, was found several hours later pinned under huge slab of rock.  Grim faced workers fought back tears as they led his young son deep into the hole.

The face was recognizable,” wrote the Tribune, “and Samuel saw quickly that it was his father.  He walked soberly beside the tramcar, which carried the body to the mouth of the tunnel.  He climbed into the patrol wagon and went with the body to the station, where he remained dry-eyed until the Coroner permitted the removal of the body to the Sullivan’s home at No. 803 Third Avenue.” (New York Daily Tribune, October 26, 1903)

Around eight that morning the rescuers and laborers put down their tools.  The missing workers had all been accounted for and the search and recovery teams were exhausted.  Water streamed in from the tunnel roof and another collapse was feared.

After more than ten hours below ground Father Lynch exited the base of Fort George Hill and stood, streaked with mud, before a group of newspapermen.

It was nothing,” Father Lynch would say of his long night in the tunnel. “I was only doing my duty—only doing what priests all over the world are doing every day.  There are priests here in the city who do more than that every day of their lives.”  (New York Times, October 26, 1903)

A few lucky survivors,  New York  Tribune, October 26, 1903.
A few lucky survivors, New York Tribune, October 26, 1903.

Of the ten lives lost in the disaster seven were Italian.  The accident was the single deadliest incident in the construction of the system.

Days after the disaster it was discovered that twenty-eight-year-old Frank Upper, who was crushed beyond recognition in the collapse, had posed as a common laborer in order to learn the tunnel trade. He was, in fact, the son of a wealthy Canadian railroad contractor and the protégé of John B. McDonald, Chief Contractor of the IRT.

Incident Report

The day after the tragedy George S. Rice, Deputy Chief Engineer of the New York Rapid Transit Commission, issued his report.

Rice concluded that the collapse was an accident pure and simple.  He stated that all of the workers were aware of the “hazardous nature of their task” and that every effort had been made to keep them safe.

Moisture in the rock was in all probability the cause of the disaster,” Rice stated.

There has been a great deal of rain recently,” Rice continued.  “Probably as a result of that, this 300-ton mass, with moisture filled seams on both sides of it, just slid right out of place.  There was no way to guard against it and there was no way of detecting the danger beforehand…The strange feature of this case is that the rock did not fall till half an hour after the blast.  The men had waited a reasonable time before going back to their work, and were justified in assuming that everything was all right.”

 Postscript
On March 19, 1904, after three of years toiling underground, the two northern tunnel crews made the connection 180-feet below 190th Street. The southern dig had been completed in 1902 and now the entire two-mile span had been achieved.

The workers gave a celebratory shout and waited for Chief Engineer William Barclay Parsons to make the first pass though the narrow aperture.  Parsons flashed a broad grin to the miners in the northern passage as he crawled out of the hole.  The tunnels lined up perfectly.

Fort George tunnel entrance in 1906, NYHS.
Fort George tunnel entrance in 1906, NYHS.
Fort George Tunnel, undated postcard.
Fort George Tunnel, undated postcard.

On March 12, 1906 the first passenger train departed 157th Street at six in the morning to surprisingly little fanfare.  The train rolled through the deep tunnel, bypassing the still to be completed 168th and 181st Street stations, and exited the base of Fort George Hill where an elevated rail line carried passengers as far as 221st Street.

The fare was a nickel and northern Manhattan would never be the same.

May they rest in peace:

Timothy Sullivan, 45
William Scheutte, 20
Frank Upper, 45
Alfonzo Armetello, 35
Guisseppe Barone, 35
Luigi Pocci, 30
Giacomo Schaccetti, 27
Ferri Telli, 40
Stanziore Brune
Louis Tippio

2 COMMENTS

  1. I often thought about how difficult it was to build a tunnel through the rock without any modern tools. What a horrible accident and so many good people that risked lives to rescue those trapped. To see the pay they received shows how desperate the poor immigrants were to make any kind of money. That is why union’s came into being. RIP to those poor souls.

  2. I grew up in Inwood and took the IRT many times either to work or some places with my parents or my friends . Rode back and forth from the Dyckman street station to South Ferry Station . This was a terrible tragedy that nearly derailed the extension of the IRT line. But perseverance and knowing they had to get the job done created a new neighborhood that grew in leaps and bounds.

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