Prospect Park

Ask, but don’t expect to receive: BP presses MTA for Malbone Street crash monument

May 14, 2019 Raanan Geberer
Nov. 1 marked the 100th anniversary of the Malbone Street wreck, the worst tragedy in New York City mass transit history. Photos courtesy of the New York Transit Museum

After six months, the Brooklyn Borough President’s Office is still seeking a cost estimate from the MTA that will help it proceed with plans to install a permanent marker to commemorate the worst disaster in New York City transit history.

The Malbone Street crash of 1918, which took place on a now-unused approach to the Prospect Park station on the Brighton Beach line (today’s B and Q lines), killed 93 people and injured more than 200 others.

Related: Ceremony held to commemorate anniversary of deadly 1918 subway crash that killed 93

During a strike against Brooklyn Rapid Transit — one of several private companies whose lines became part of the city subway system — a young, inexperienced dispatcher, Edward Luciano, was pressed into service as a motorman.

On Nov. 1, 1918, Luciano was driving a Brighton Beach-bound train when he ran into trouble. He couldn’t control the train’s speed and, by the time the train reached the sharp “S” curve where the accident occurred, it was going 30 mph in a 5 mph zone. The fact that the BRT used wooden cars in those days — as opposed to steel — made the crash even more deadly.

The accident so traumatized New Yorkers that the city changed Malbone Street’s name to the one it still has today: Empire Boulevard.

After being known mainly to historians and transit buffs for many years, the disaster received renewed publicity last November when Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, MTA and city officials and others held a 100th anniversary gathering in which they told the stories of several of the victims and laid a wreath at the Prospect Park station.

Adams wrote a letter a couple of weeks after the ceremony to MTA New York City Transit President Andy Byford, who had spoken at the memorial, asking for a cost estimate for the siting of a permanent plaque to commemorate the disaster.

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Nearly six months later, with no response from the MTA, Adams sent a follow-up letter. This one was also signed by more than 25 heavy hitters in the Brooklyn political, cultural and institutional worlds, urging the MTA to provide a cost estimate or an update on the matter’s progress.

“The estimate from the MTA will help determine the full funding needed, including whether the Borough President’s Office is able to cover the entirety of costs,” a spokesperson for Adams told the Brooklyn Eagle.

Asked whether the marker would take the shape of a plaque, a statue or something else, Adams’ spokesperson responded that “the estimate of the marker would help shape the determination of the marker’s presentation.”

“We are writing as a collective to show enthusiastic support for the creation of this permanent memorial for the victims of the crash,” the May 1 follow-up letter reads.

“Once again, we write today to support the siting of a permanent marker to be located at the Prospect Park station along Flatbush Avenue to ensure that the victims and their descendants — as well as the important reforms made as a result of this terrible crash — are not forgotten, and that current and future generations of straphangers can learn how this moment in history has impacted our society for generations.”

A spokesperson from the MTA confirmed to the Eagle that the transit agency had received the latest letter and is reviewing it, but added that it has no official statement yet.

Other elected officials who signed the letter include U.S. Rep. Yvette Clarke; State Sens. Zellnor Myrie and Kevin Parker; Assemblymembers Robert Carroll and Walter Mosley; Councilmembers Laurie Cumbo, Mathieu Eugene and Brad Lander; five district leaders; and a community board chair.

Local stakeholders also signed on, including Prospect Park Administrator Susan Donoghue; Alex Herrera of the Landmarks Conservancy; Brooklyn Public Library President Linda Johnson; Brooklyn Botanic Garden President Scot Medbury, Green-Wood Cemetery President Richard Moylan; Brooklyn Historical Society President Deborah Schwartz; Brooklyn Borough Historian Ron Schweiger; Transport Workers Union Local 100 President Anthony Utano; and several board members of the Prospect Lefferts Gardens Heritage Council.

Moylan told the Eagle that some of the victims of the Malbone Street crash are buried at Green-Wood and said the event was a great tragedy. However, he added, it led to many safety improvements in rail technology that are still used today.

This last point was also emphasized at November’s anniversary ceremony. Byford told those assembled at the scene that steel cars had replaced wooden cars by the late 1920s; new, improved clamps hold the rails onto the ties more securely; and the “tripcock” device, not yet invented at the time of the Malbone Street wreck, automatically stops a train if a train operator goes through a red signal.

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