On Monday morning, January 5, 1920, Green Lake streetcar No. 721 en route to downtown Seattle with more than 100 passengers aboard overturns in a dangerous “S” curve at N 39th Street and Woodland Park Avenue, crashing broadside into a utility pole with such force that the car is almost cut in two. Miraculously, none of the passengers are killed in the immediate accident, but at least 70 are injured, several very seriously. The victims requiring emergency attention are taken to the City Hospital by every conveyance available. The only fatality is Paul F. Behnke, 35, a boilermaker, who dies of his injuries the following day, on January 6, 1920.
A Dark, Misty Morning
Motorman M. R. Fullerton left the Fremont streetcar barn early on Monday morning, January 5, 1920, operating streetcar No. 721, a large “700 series” coach, for the commuter-run from Green Lake to downtown Seattle. It was still dark outside with a heavy mist in the air. At about 7:10 a.m., Fullerton made the last stop before the “S” curve, at N 42nd Street and Woodland Park Avenue, and then proceeded down a moderate four-degree grade. The streetcar was carrying more than 100 sitting and standing passengers en route to work.
Fullerton noticed immediately that the streetcar was going too fast to make the mandatory safety stop just before the sharp curve at N 39th Street, and began applying the air-brakes. The brakes began to take hold but then something broke and the air-brakes lost compression. He applied the hand-brake and sand but with no effect; the heavy streetcar continued gaining momentum. Fullerton then reversed the motor and applied power, locking the wheels. The streetcar continued sliding down the slippery tracks into the sharp curve.
At 7:13 a.m., Green Lake streetcar No. 721 slid into the “S” curve. The rear trucks (wheels) jumped the track, swinging the car 180 degrees. When the trucks hit the curb, the streetcar turned over, crashing broadside into a utility pole with such force that the car was almost cut in two. The front trucks sheered off the chassis and went skidding across the street, landing upside-down against the far curb.
The accident was immediately phoned to the Seattle Police Department who sent out a call for every available ambulance in the city. In addition to the police vehicles and ambulances, the Seattle Taxicab and Transfer Company sent several cars to the scene to help transport casualties to hospitals and doctor’s offices.
Many injured passengers were carried to nearby homes to await medical attention. Those able to help themselves crawled out of the wreckage and stood by in a vacant lot where someone built a bonfire.
Initially, it was reported that several passengers had been killed. As victims were removed from the wreckage, there were rumors the death-toll could be more than half-a-dozen victims. After about one-half hour’s work, Municipal Street Railway officials determined there had been no deaths in the crash but that at least 70 had been injured, several very seriously. The majority of the victims were taken directly to the City Hospital where a special ward had been set up to handle the emergency.
Reported Deaths and Paul Behnke's Death
Seattle newspapers listed Joseph Pfister (1883-1947), age 36, 7550 Crescent Place, an employee of the Pacific Telephone & Telegraph Company, as “seriously injured” and taken to City Hospital He was described as “badly bruised and cut about the head and neck. Possible injuries to the base of skull” (Seattle P-I). According to his daughter Dorothea (Pfister) Nordstrand (1916-2011), an early edition of the paper reported him as deceased. His mother-in-law read of his death in the newspaper and ran 10 blocks to the family home to inform his wife (her daughter). Just as she arrived, Joseph Pfister walked in the door, injured, but alive (Dorothea Nordstrand).
Paul F. Behnke, age 35, a boilerman, became the streetcar accident’s only fatality. He died on January 6, 1920, at City Hospital, as the result of complications from a skull fracture. Behnke’s death opened the way for an official inquiry by the King County Coroner’s Office to determine responsibility for the accident and death. Of specific interest was the condition of the equipment, the training and experience of the motormen, and safety procedures.
County coroner Dr. Charles C. Tiffin stated, “I will learn the cause of the accident that resulted in the death of one man and imperiled the lives of at least seventy others if I have to make an investigation of the car equipment of every street car on the Municipal Street Railway. If the responsibility lies in the fact that the equipment of the street railway has been allowed to run down, that will be brought out at the inquest. If the fault lies in the fact that inexperienced employees are allowed to run cars on dangerous lines, the people are entitled to know that fact too” (The Seattle Times).
On Saturday, January 10, 1920, a coroner’s inquest was held at the County-City Building (King County Court House) to investigate the causes of the January 5th trolley car accident. Motorman W. R. Fullerton, conductor A. F. Corbin and several passengers onboard the streetcar that day, had been subpoenaed to testify about the circumstances of the accident.
The jury learned that W. R. Fullerton, age 23, was new and inexperienced. He had only been operating streetcars since November 29, 1919, and was not thoroughly familiar with the Green Lake line. In addition, it was dark, the weather was poor, and the tracks wet.
Fullerton testified that when he applied the air-brakes, he heard something break followed by the sound of grating metal. He said that all his efforts to stop the streetcar proved unsuccessful and that the car was definitely going too fast to negotiate the curve.
Two experienced motormen who had driven streetcar No. 721 prior to the accident, testified that the brakes were slow and the car was unruly. Railway experts estimated a speed of 20 m.p.h. into the sharp corner would more than sufficient to derail a streetcar.
D. W. Henderson, Superintendent of Transportation for the Municipal Street Railway, testified that the rear brake rod was found broken but it was undetermined whether it broke as the result of the accident or whether the rod was defective. Several other railway employees testified that the car had been inspected prior to being put into service on January 5th and found to be mechanically sound and in good working order. Municipal Street Railway experts also testified that the accident was most likely the result of excessive speed.
University of Washington Professor E. O. Eastwood, Mechanical Engineering Department, retained by the coroner’s office to examine the wrecked streetcar and other railway equipment, testified that, in his expert opinion, the brake rod was broken in the wreck, not by the application of the air-brakes, and that only excessive speed could have caused the accident.
The Motorman Exonerated
Following an all-day inquiry into the death of Paul F. Behnke, the coroner’s jury exonerated motorman W. R. Fullerton from all blame for the accident and commended him “for his efforts to control the streetcar by remaining at his post under dangerous circumstances.” The jury declared, “It is to be regretted that the management has seen fit to detail practically inexperienced men in charge of cars, especially where the traffic is most heavy and the tracks dangerous” (Seattle P-I). The jury made no comments about the general condition of the streetcars or tracks.
Thomas F. Murphine, Superintendent of Public Utilities, objected to the verdict, stating he could not see how management could be blamed for inadequate training. “They probably do not realize that before a man can become experienced, he must pass through a stage of being inexperienced. When men die, are sick, or leave the service, they have to be replaced by somebody, and sometimes by inexperienced men” (The Seattle Times).