The summer of 1926: Calvin Coolidge is President, Al Smith is the Governor of New York, Prohibition is celebrating its seventh year, Warner Brothers makes the first talking motion picture, flappers do the Charleston, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig are leading the Yankees to another pennant, Charles Lindbergh is barnstorming in biplanes around the country and there is, for the most part, peace in the world.
For most of the 20th century, many people in New York City would finish their nine-to-five jobs at the end of the week, board a Long Island Rail Road train at Penn Station and come out to the peaceful countryside of the eastern end of Long Island where they had summer homes with their families. On one of these occasions, Friday the 13th in August of 1926—exactly 90 years ago—things did not go as planned.
It didn’t affect the middle-class customers, who could pay relatively small sums for tickets on coaches that went relatively slowly and made many stops along the way. Instead, it went badly for the rich who wanted a luxury ride, the Friday afternoon Shelter Island Flyer, which went out to Greenport—the mate to the Cannonball luxury train that went out to the Hamptons.
These trains, with whistles blaring and smoke trailing behind at 70, or even 80 miles an hour, if they had to make up time, came along at high speed and stopped only once, about halfway, at Manorville and Patchogue respectively. The cost of a seat on these luxury trains was double the cost of a seat on the regular train. For 10 times the cost, you could be pampered on this luxury train in what were called parlour cars—Victorian living rooms on wheels with velvet curtains framing the windows, mahogany paneling on the walls and Oriental rugs across the floor. White-coated porters could serve drinks from a bar or come by with cigars and newspapers to where you sat in comfortable easy chairs, enjoying the countryside as it zipped by.
Those taking the Friday high-speed trains were not among those who had to stay at their work all day. At this level of executive privilege, they’d wind things up at 3 p.m. and be on their way before rush hour. The Shelter Island Flyer that afternoon would leave the city at 4:10 p.m. The train to the Hamptons would be leaving immediately after.
Harold Fish, a 41-year-old stockbroker on Wall Street, was one of those privileged to take the parlour car. Rain accompanied by thunder and lightning had attacked the city in both the morning and early afternoon, but at the time he left his office on Wall Street at 3 p.m., it had stopped and was starting to clear. He would be going on the Flyer. One of his house servants would meet him in Greenport. But he would not be taken to Shelter Island. He would be taken to his summer home in East Marion, 20 minutes drive further on, where his wife and children would be waiting for him.
In Jamaica, where the managers of the railroad order the train combinations every day, the manifest showed there would be 31 people aboard that afternoon’s parlour car. And 337 who paid to be in the coaches to the rear.
The managers assembled 10 cars for this trip, including two steam engines for extra power, not just one. One of them, #214, would take the lead. It consisted of the boiler, the cab and the coal car. Behind it was the much more powerful #2, the pride of the line, a Camelback, called that because the engineer’s cab sat astride the boiler, with an engine that could drive its seven-foot-diameter wheels to take its load up to 120 miles an hour.
Behind these two engines came the parlour car, a smoking car, a baggage car and then five coaches to accommodate those who had not paid for a parlour car seat.
At 3:15 p.m., Fish put his white summer jacket on over his shirt and tie, his bowler hat on his head, said goodbye to his staff and took the elevator down to the street. A taxi would take him to Penn Station and his seat on the parlor car “Eastern Lily.”
Also leaving for the parlour car at that hour were Charles A. Angell, a wealthy contractor, his wife, their two grandchildren (George Jr., 3, and Dorothy, 1) and their daughter-in-law Mrs. George A. Shuford of Biltmore, North Carolina. Also with them was what was described as “a negro maid.” No further identification of her was ever made in any of the accounts of this trip. They had spent the night in the city and now were off to visit their daughter-in-law’s parents at their summer home on Shelter Island.
With crew, there were 378 people on board as the train left the Jamaica Station. The skies were darkening again.
The train rocketed along for a while, then stopped at Manorville, halfway out, at 5:41 p.m. Soon, they were off again at 70 miles an hour, bound for Greenport, another hour away. They would not make it.
About 40 miles west of Manorville, alongside the tracks in the farming community of Calverton just before Riverhead, there sat a large, old wooden barn that had been converted into a pickle-packing factory.
A railroad spur off the main line ended there in a dead end. In one end of this factory came local cucumbers, barrels of salt, barrels of spices, empty bottles with metal lids, cardboard boxes, bottles of glue and stacks of labels that read GOLDEN’S PICKLES, the word GOLDEN’S in the curve of a pickle so you’d know exactly what you were getting. This label matched a huge curving wooden sign in the shape of a pickle mounted over the barn doors. It was 4 feet wide and 12 feet long.
Men worked long hours five days a week at this factory. The salt and spice barrels were on platforms on the attic rafters, with chutes sending their contents down into vats as needed. Below, empty bottles were labeled and then sent down a conveyor belt to be filled with salt, brine and a dozen pickles each. Then they were topped and boxed and brought out to be put on an arriving railroad car.
On this particular day, late that afternoon, the foreman, noting that thunder and lightning was starting up again, sent the men home for the day at 5 p.m. instead of 6. He then locked up and went home himself.
None of them noticed, as they left in their Model T’s and wagons and flivvers, that a four-foot-high metal lever—which one way would let the trains proceed straight but the other way would result in a train coming down the siding to the factory—was missing a small cotter pin. This three-inch pin was designed to lock the lever one way or another so it could not move back and forth. It was the job of the factory foreman to move it. But it was not his job to notice the cotter pin was missing. As they left, the workmen might have noticed that at that moment the lever was positioned to allow the train to head on through as it was supposed to.
The Shelter Island Flyer flew past the Edwards Avenue crossing at 70 miles an hour. The two sweating firemen had each shoveled more than six tons of coal into the fireboxes of their respective engines. And now the rains had started again.
The first engine passed the lever without moving it, but in doing so shook the lever to the other position. As a result, the large Camelback wrenched over onto the siding. The smaller engine in front fell on its side and blocked the Camelback for an instant, then the two engines uncoupled and the Camelback hit and climbed up over the first engine, went airborne and came down to smash directly on top of the Pickleworks, bringing almost all of it down with it. Behind, the parlour car and the smoking car crashed into the engines and fell apart. Behind that, the baggage car came off the tracks but was not severely damaged, and behind that, the five coaches lurched to a halt, but remained on the tracks. People fled in every direction.
Two men in a pickup truck sitting on Edwards Avenue at the railroad crossing witnessed the smoke and fire of this terrible crash. As they ran to the scene, they met a man from the wreckage carrying a small child. Taking the child, they returned to their truck and raced off toward Southampton Hospital as fast as they could. Help was called. Within 20 minutes, police cars and ambulances were there. Also arriving was a contingent of soldiers from the nearby Army training base Camp Upton, the 62nd Coast Artillery battalion. They arrived in a truck with floodlights on the roof.
The only survivors among the five firemen and the engineers was Engineer Charles T. Jackson, who was thrown through the open skylight of the Camelback into the air. He was found on the wooden floor of the part of the Pickleworks still standing, where rescue people arrived to see him fighting suffocation under an ever-increasing mountain of salt cascading down from the broken barrels in the attic rafters above. His mouth was held clear of it until he could be pulled out. Engineer William Squires and Fireman John Montgomery from the smaller engine were thrown onto the 600-degree overheated steam pipes and then against the fire box to be crushed by many tons of coal from the tender that crashed in on top of them. The fireman aboard the Camelback suffered the same fate.
Surprisingly, all of the 337 people in the coach cars survived, and so did most of the 31 people in the parlour cars. But not all.
Mrs. George A. Shuford of Biltmore, North Carolina, was trapped under the debris for five hours. She was finally pulled out when rescuers using blowtorches cut through the metal beams trapping her, but she died in Southampton Hospital the next day. She’d remained awake for much of this ordeal. She was told repeatedly that her two children were alive. But they were not. She died not knowing. Her parents-in-law Charles A. Angell and his wife survived with only minor injuries. The “negro maid” survived, but had to have a leg amputated.
Harold Fish was thrown out of the parlour car, over the Camelback engine and onto the floor of the Pickleworks where he died from suffocation from the barrels of salt pouring down upon him. He had not been seen in time.
The other occupants of the parlour car survived either with or without injuries.
It took five days to clear all the debris. An investigation conducted by Dr. Clarence Miles, a local coroner, resulted in a report clearing the railroad of any responsibility in the crash. But then it was learned that Dr. Miles had a free railroad pass he could use any time, and so did some of the other coroners. One of the other coroners resigned in the ensuing scandal.
After that, a grand jury cited the railroad for apathy and failure to inspect the switch and there was a trial, but nobody was ever convicted.
Harold Fish willed his wife, Elizabeth, and others an estate of $50,000—about $650,000 in today’s money. He is buried in the Sterling Cemetery in Greenport under a gravestone that reads HAROLD FISH, SON OF LATHAM A. AND AMIE E. FISH, 1879 TO 1926.
The Long Island Rail Road has sent out many trains on many journeys since 1926 and there have been other wrecks, large and small, but after the very spectacular Pickleworks wreck, there was not one more mishap for the next 24 years. A record.