Tacoma Streetcar Disaster

October 26, 2017 David Sukola

C Street Trestle

One of the most disastrous street car accidents in U. S. history occurred in Tacoma, Washington, on the morning of July 4, 1900, at the south end of the bridge that at that time spanned the gulch at Twenty-sixth and South C streets. Car No. 116, heavily loaded with people bound for the celebration in Tacoma ran away down the DeLin Street hill, jumped the track at the curve and plunged over the bridge and was crushed upon the logs 100 feet below. Forty-three persons were killed and many injured.

The car, in charge of Motorman F. L. Bohem and Conductor J. D. Calhoun, left South Tacoma shortly after 8 o’clock. Soon every inch of space was occupied and passengers were clinging to the outside railings. Shortly after leaving the top of the hill the motorman realized that the car was beyond control. Brakes were tightly set, sand was used and the current was reversed, but without decreasing the speed of the car. Passengers jumped to the ground and the track for 300 feet was bordered with the injured. At the bridge the car cleared the twelve-inch guard rail and plunged into the gulch. The crash was heard for blocks. Dead, dying and injured men, women and children, splintered wood and twisted iron were piled together in the bottom of the gulch whose steep sides made the work of rescue very difficult. Veterans of the Philippine war, then in Tacoma for their first reunion, rendered valuable assistance.

Mayor Campbell refused to take part in the holiday exercises and turned his attention to relief measures. Subscription lists were started and about three thousand dollars was given. Sheriff Mills, under instructions from Coroner Hoska, took charge of the wreck and placed deputies on guard.

For months citizens had protested against the dilapidated cars. The council had passed an ordinance regulating the speed, but the ordinance had not been enforced. After the accident the council met and heard resolutions condemning the company for discharging old employees and putting new men in their places; for overloading the cars and for exceeding the speed limit. Action on the resolution was deferred pending the findings of the coroner’s jury a few days later. The jury, composed of Peter Irving, Charles Plass, Charles Atkins, J. H. Babbitt and F. A. Turner, spent three days in investigating and brought in one of the most severe arraignments of a street car company ever returned.

Motorman Bohem, then recovering from his injuries, testified that he had had three years’ experience in Cincinnati, but that he had never had charge of a car over the DeLin Street grade until the morning of the accident. Among the many witnesses were street railway experts from other cities who examined the tracks, which they found to be badly worn, and the flanges of some of the car wheels were thin and weak. The track had been in use for ten years and was in bad condition.

The jury found the accident due to the carelessness of Motor man Bohem and asserted that the Tacoma Railway & Power Company was grossly and criminally careless and negligent in permitting said Motorman F. L. Bohem to go out on said car 116 over said dangerous grade without any previous effort to ascertain his efficiency. The company was grossly and criminally careless in maintaining said dangerous grade without installing any safety appliances and was also careless and lax in the maintenance of its track and equipment.

The DeLin Street grade and the dangerous curve had been the cause of other accidents. The first of these occurred about ten years before when two motor cars loaded with men collided, killing one man and injuring a dozen others. Two cars of green wood hauled by a dummy engine with Nelson Bedell in charge, ran away and went over the bridge. Other accidents had resulted in the death of two women.

Damage suits arising from the wreck cost the company more than one hundred thousand dollars. The piled-up suits almost led to the appointment of a receiver for the company. It finally set aside a sum exceeding one hundred thousand dollars and informed the lawyers for the injured that they could take that sum and distribute it, and that a greater demand would bring about a receivership. The lawyers accepted the offer.