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Streetcar accident results in fatality, first of the kind in Seattle, on May 12, 1889.

HistoryLink.org Essay 3283 : Printer-Friendly Format

On May 12, 1889, 26-year-old Sophronia (Sweat) Wagner (misspelled Waggener) (1862-1889), the mother of two children, is killed in a streetcar accident in the first streetcar death in Seattle. The streetcar is descending the high hill later called Denny Hill (which is later still regraded out of existence), when the grip that holds the car to an underground revolving cable comes detached. The car hurls down the hill and Sophronia and her two children are thrown out. Sophronia is instantly killed.

From Nebraska to Seattle

The Wagners had just arrived in Seattle. On Sunday morning May 12, 1889, on a day of cloudy skies and warm 50 degree temperatures, the family detrained at the Seattle depot from a train they had boarded in Spokane Falls. William M. Wagner, and his wife and two sons had started their journey from their home in Caldron, Dawes County, Nebraska “in search of” William’s brother, E. P. Wagner, a real estate agent (Seattle Daily Press, May 13, 1889). Later that morning William, Sophronia (age 26), Alma (age 8), and Pliny (age 5) boarded a cable car traveling along Front Street (later 1st Avenue) for a ride to North Seattle (later called lower Queen Anne).

Sideless Streetcars

In business for about six months, the Front Street Cable Railway Company’s four streetcars were open vehicles, with no side walls or bars of any kind. Just before 5:40 p.m. the Waggeners returned to 2nd Street (2nd Avenue) and Depot Street (Denny Way), Front Street Cable’s terminus, for the return trip. They boarded the streetcar, gave Conductor W. C. Hollensead four 5 cent fares for the return trip, and sat on the vehicle’s east side.

After 15 or 20 passengers boarded, gripman James McCay, using a mechanical arm called a grip, grabbed the moving underground cable to start the streetcar. As planned, the trolley began moving at the same speed as the continuously revolving underground cable. The vehicle traveled at a speed of 8 to 10 m.p.h. along 2nd Street through North Seattle and Belltown, then ascended a hill referred to as the Stewart Street Hill (later called Denny Hill, later still regraded to flat). The crest of the hill was located near Stewart Street.

Falling off Denny Hill

In about a block or a block and a half between Stewart and Pike streets the elevation of the hill dropped 40 to 50 feet (the equivalent of a four- or five-story building).

After passing over the crest of the hill, just south of 2nd Street and Stewart Street, the streetcar made a sudden jerk and started speeding up. McCay initially thought the grip was not firmly grasping the cable. He thought the grip was slipping, thereby causing the cable car to speed up on this downhill slope. He pulled back on the grip lever to regrasp the cable and instantly realized that the cable was gone! The cable had somehow pulled completely away from the grip. The streetcar, unimpeded, hurtled down the hill “at a fearful rate of speed” (Seattle P-I).

The passengers were terrified. Sophronia grabbed her youngest child, Phiny, placed him on her lap with one arm firmly around him and with the other she grasped the back of the seat. In a desperate attempt to slow the streetcar, Gripman McCay pulled down hard on the track brake and Conductor Hollensead, with both feet, stood on the wheel brake. It was no use. If anything the streetcar barreling downhill sped up.

A Passenger Leaps Off

The passengers became even more frantic when, about halfway down the hill, they saw one passenger, apparently fearful that the trolley was going to derail and crash, leap from the trolley. Witnesses stated that the trolley continued to gain speed as it hurled down the hill, and reached a speed of more than 20 m.p.h.

At the bottom of the hill, the tracks made a 90-degree right turn onto Pike Street. Just before the curve was reached, the two trolley operators released the brakes to prevent the trolley from derailing. At this instant another passenger jumped from the trolley, hit the street, and rolled about 30 feet. He badly injured his ankle.

The Tragedy

Because Sophronia Wagner was holding onto her children rather than onto the trolley, when the streetcar rounded the curve the centrifugal force threw all three off. Sophronia sailed through the air, landed with great violence head first on the wooden sidewalk curbing, apparently breaking her neck, and rolled for some distance. She was instantly killed.

This accident resulted in the first Seattle streetcar death. Sophronia's children Alma and Pliny both suffered head wounds (not life-threatening). Seattle resident Dr. Albert Gray was thrown against the side of the car, which caused painful injuries to his face and bruised or broke his collarbone.

The following day Sophronia Wagner was buried at the Methodist Cemetery. The operators of the trolley could not explain the cause of the accident, but a few days later decided to replace all grips on all streetcars.

Sources:
Thomas W. Prosch, "A Chronological History of Seattle From 1850 to 1897," typescript dated 1900-1901, p. 365, Northwest Collection, University of Washington Library, Seattle; Seattle Daily Press May 11, 1889, p. 5; Ibid., May 13, 1889, p. 5; Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 14, 1889, p. 3; The Seattle Times, May 20, 1889, p. 5; Polk’s Seattle Directory Company, Seattle City Directory for 1889 (Seattle: Polk’s Seattle Directory Co, Publishers, 1889).
Note: Sophronia (Sweat) Waggenner's birth date was corrected on March 13, 2007. The name Waggenner was corrected to Wagner based on the 1880 United States Federal Census (www.ancestry.com), on December 30, 2007.


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