On January 8, 1937, a crowded municipal streetcar plunges from the Spokane Street trestle over West Seattle's Avalon Ravine, killing two passengers and injuring 59. It is the worst accident in the 53-year history of Seattle street railways.
Out of Control
The streetcar was descending the Avalon Way hill at 7:30 a.m. when its air brakes froze open. None of the passengers seemed to notice until the car began to pick up speed. Roy Gassett (1904-1958), the motorman, did everything he could to stop the car, but was helpless. People standing in the aisles struggled to maintain their balance, and some began to scream.
By the time the car reached the bottom of the slope, it was going too fast to negotiate the sharp curve at West Spokane Street and 30th Avenue SW. A man yelled out "Hang on! We're going to crash!" and passengers braced themselves as the car jumped the tracks.
It slammed into a concrete pillar, caroming off it onto its side. Several people were thrown from the wreckage. When the car finally came to a stop, it teetered against a guard railing, which saved it from falling 15 feet farther down onto the train tracks below.
Bruce Thayer, a passenger, was one of the first people to climb out of the wreckage, and he immediately ran to the nearest telephone and called for ambulances. By the time he returned to the crash site, the police had arrived, as well as other streetcars. Motorists and bystanders helped drag the injured out of the wreckage.
Broken glass and shattered wood was everywhere. The top of the car was torn off, and many passengers crawled out of the gaping hole. Others squeezed out through broken windows. The injured were strewn 20 to 30 feet from the car in every direction.
Soon, a wail of sirens was heard. Every ambulance in the city was dispatched to the crash site. Police Sergeant G. W. Wilson criticized Harborview County Hospital for not sending a doctor, but hospital officials later noted that they never send doctors out on accident calls, as they had "no means of conveyance for them and no ambulances. All we can do is stand by and wait for the injured" (The Seattle Times, January 8, 1937). The county had not been equipped with ambulances for years, and most rescue work was done by private ambulance firms.
The injured received aid and were transported to nearby hospitals. Leo Bow (1888-1937) died en route. W. A. Court (1898-1937) later died in Seattle General Hospital. Those who survived suffered broken bones, cuts, and bruises.
City Engineer Nathaniel Carle (1889-1960), chairman of the Board of Public Works, called for an immediate probe into the cause of the accident. Meanwhile, the entire streetcar system came under scrutiny. West Seattle residents pointed the finger at the city's aging trolley fleet.
At the time, many of Seattle's streetcars were decades old, with some dating back to the late 1800s. The car that was I the Avalon Hill accident was built in 1907, then remodeled as a "pay-as-you-enter" car in 1910. In 1929, it was rebuilt to accommodate only a single motorman. Prior to that, most streetcars carried both a motorman and a conductor.
Mayor John F. Dore (1881-1938) defended the street railway modernization program, and agreed that newer equipment was needed. He also questioned why cars didn't carry conductors anymore, noting that two people might have been able to stop the car instead of one. Nevertheless, Dore considered Gassett to be a hero for trying to prevent the accident as best he could.
An inquest into the accident opened on January 11, conducted by Coroner Otto Mittelstadt (1902-1984), and with a jury made up of six railroad men. Witnesses testified that the brakes on the car had been working correctly at previous stops, but when the car started down Avalon Hill it began picking up speed, and that Gassett fought the controls all the way into the crash. It was estimated that the streetcar had reached speed of up to 30 miles an hour at the time of the accident.
Street railway motormen and car repairers were asked about streetcar brakes in general, and many of them noted that the brakes didn't come under any state or federal inspection laws. One repairman noted that the brake shoes, which were two and a half inches thick when new, were often used down to an eighth of an inch thick. Most railway operators testified that they were very good about reporting defects in their cars, but that others weren't so diligent.
When the jury was taken to the Georgetown shops of the Municipal Railway to inspect that splintered wreckage, one man noticed new evidence almost immediately. An electrical line to the mechanism that operated the air compressor was not only broken, it was taped in three places and not covered by a conduit. This was what caused the air brakes to fail.
The jury released their verdict on July 15, Roy Gassett was held incompetent and railway management was held negligent. They recommended that Gassett -- who they determined to be inexperienced -- be dismissed immediately from operating cars or buses. Mayor Dore, who still considered Gassett to be a hero, fought to keep him in service as a motorman, but Gassett stayed on as a railway laborer instead.
Surprisingly, the tragedy did not appear to influence an election two months later in which voters soundly rejected a plan to replace Seattle's streetcars with buses and electric trackless trolleys. Despite this implied endorsement, the street railway system was dismantled by April 1941.