The Woodbridge Derailment of 1951: New Jersey’s deadliest rail disaster

The Pennsylvania Railroad crossing at Elizabeth, NJ as it appeared in a February 1895 issue of Scientific American. Once the largest corporation in the world, the Pennsylvania Railroad built train stations across much of the eastern and Midwest United States and ran commuter lines through New Jersey while paying dividends to investors for over a century. North Jersey History Genealogy Center Collections.

By Jeffrey V. Moy, North Jersey History and Genealogy Center

On Feb. 6, 1951, a Pennsylvania Railroad steam locomotive carrying 1,000 passengers from Exchange Place in Jersey City to Bayhead derailed in Woodbridge, killing 85 people and injuring over 500 more.

Nearby residents felt the massive collision and rushed to the aid of survivors, as first responders cut victims free from the wreckage and tended to the wounded. New Jersey’s worst rail accident remains among the worst such disasters in United States history.

The express commuter train – known as “The Broker” because of the number of Wall Street workers it transported – derailed at a temporary track and wooden trestle laid near the Woodbridge station to facilitate construction of the New Jersey Turnpike.

Since excessive speed caused the derailment, Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) supervisors, and some officials, were quick to place blame solely on the engineer. But a group of prosecutors, state and federal regulators, and news reporters were determined to uncover the full course of events.

Photograph of the Broker derailment at Woodbridge, as it appeared in Daily Record coverage of the accident, February 6, 1951. North Jersey History & Genealogy Center (NJHGC) Historic Newspaper Collection.

Among the PRR staff on board that day were 58-year-old Joseph Fitzsimmons, an engineer with 30 years of experience (and a railroad employee since the age of 12), as well as 54-year-old conductor and fellow rail veteran John H. Bishop.

In news coverage later that week, Bishop recalled that the train departed Jersey City at 5:10 pm, at which point he relayed to the engineer: “Eleven cars and everything regular, Joe. And don’t forget your speed at Woodbridge.”

The temporary span had just opened earlier that day, necessitating a reduction in speed from 60- to 25 mph, which PRR managers had conveyed to rail workers verbally and in flyers handed out with their daily schedules.

The conductor recalled the moment before the accident. As he bent over to take a passenger’s ticket, “I sensed, I thought [the engineer] was going too fast. I looked for the emergency cord. I never reached it. I never saw it.”

Unable to grasp the cord through the standing-room-only crowd, Bishop was thrown into a corner as the train rolled to its side, leaving the track and crashing down an embankment.

When pressed by investigators why he hadn’t reminded Fitzsimmons of the new curve prior to approaching Woodbridge, the conductor countered, “I had implicit faith in the man that he knew where he was.”  He felt no need to remind the engineer because “he was in a better position to know every inch of the road.”

Bishop also noted the standard railroad practice of placing yellow flags or lights before a reduced speed zone, which surely would have alerted the engineer. Tragically, PRR managers decided this precaution was unnecessary.

As rescue efforts continued well into the evening of Feb. 6th, the extent of the injuries and dead was soon apparent. The Woodbridge derailment stands as the deadliest train accident in New Jersey’s history, and one of the worst in the United States. NJHGC Historic Newspaper Collection.

Among the many bankers on board that day was 39-year-old John Fahrenholz of Spotswood, who worked at Chase National Bank. He was in the second car.

“I was dozing when I was suddenly awakened by a swaying of the train. The next thing I knew, I was outside the car and lying near the engine. Steam from the engine was blowing in my face. How I got out of that car, God only knows. I tried to crawl away from the engine and the steam but couldn’t. Then I looked up and a priest was over me, giving me last rites. I thought for a moment I was in heaven. I lost my topcoat on the wreck.”

Fahrenholz suffered a head injury and fractured right knee. But, according to the reporter he spoke with, appeared in good spirits despite his obvious pain.

Also aboard the Broker that day was Pearl Selinger, 25, who was returning home after working as a bookkeeper in Manhattan. Riding in the second car, she remembered: “My feet flew in the air, my shoes fell off and there was a seat across my back. I thought the car was going to catch on fire.”

As she scrambled to the front of the car, someone broke through a window and dragged her to safety. Welcomed into a nearby home to catch her bearings, Selinger was transported to Perth Amboy Hospital for a broken arm and collarbone, as well as internal bleeding. Three friends traveling with Selinger also survived the crash.

The initial scene was by all accounts chaotic, with citizens rushing from nearby residences and businesses rushing to help as the call went out to area fire houses and police stations.

Among those first responders were two nurses from Camp Kilmer, Captains Bessie Christie and Barbara Baggs, whose medical efforts were coordinated by Col. William A. Boyson, division surgeon of the 28th National Guard Division.

Col. Boyson spent four hours climbing through the wreckage and helping to organize the rescue effort as Christie and Baggs treated the injured until they could be transported to area hospitals. Two Navy doctors stationed at Camp Kilmer also responded, Lt. Robert A. Mayers and William D. Ewis.

The sudden ferocity of the wreck rattled houses and businesses across town, turning citizens into first responders as they tended to individuals thrown from the train, and tried to help others escape until fire, police, and medical professionals could respond. NJHGC Historic Newspaper Collections.

As rescuers pulled the last survivors from the crash, the grim task of recovering bodies of victims began. This required an emergency call for welders to cut away wreckage.

Guy Mazza and Tony DiGiovanni of Raritan Township were among those who responded, working till midnight. “I’ve seen some horrible sights, but there was one body there that was beyond description,”  Mazza said.

Sparks from the oxyacetylene torches caused small fires amidst the debris that others extinguished with CO2 canisters and water. After cutting victims free, the welders soon realized no one else was there to remove the bodies. So they lifted them from debris-strewn cars themselves.

“Although most of the cutters had never met before, they worked as a team,” Guy recounted. “The man nearest the job always received the full cooperation of others at the scene.”

With PRR officials indicating the engineer was solely to blame for the accident, the Middlesex Prosecutor’s Office and Interstate Commerce Commission began separate investigations into the wreck’s primary and contributory factors. NJHGC Historic Newspaper Collections.

In the ensuing grief and demands for answers, Pennsylvania Railroad management isolated speed as the primary factor for the derailment. At a Feb. 28 hearing, the railroad’s assistant chief engineer for maintenance concluded speed was the sole cause of the wreck. The company agreed.

However, others painted a more complicated picture. In testimony to investigators from the Public Utility Commission (PUC), the railroad’s New York division engineer, Kenneth Silvey, stated that the required distance to brake from 65 to 25 mph before reaching the trestle was nearly double what PRR supervisors had established.

Silvey also testified that he saw no reason why PRR had not installed yellow caution lights as an additional warning about the new temporary curve ahead.

First Assistant Middlesex Prosecutor Alex Eber concluded that Engineer Fitzsimmons may have been responsible for speeding, and even mistaking the train’s position in relation to the trestle, but PRR ultimately was to blame for failing to properly signal the pass, and for failing to order a speed reduction farther from the construction site.

As railroads gained monopolies on the transportation of individuals and freight during the late 19th century, accountability for accidents and resulting injuries languished. President Grover Cleveland signed the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887 to reign in political and business malfeasance and patronage, the first such bipartisan federal commission of its kind. Later, legislative powers granted the Interstate Commerce Commission oversight on industries including telephones and telegraphs, pipelines, lake traffic, and segregation in busing and dining cars. NJHGC Collections.

Prosecutor Eber also found the railroad morally responsible and misguided in its attempt to fix blame on the engineer, and he called on the PRR to be indicted for manslaughter.

Despite Eber’s passionate allegations, and the Public Utility Commission’s agreement, by the first anniversary of the crash Eber dropped his prosecution, arguing that the legal expenses from a trial would punish the taxpayers more than the Pennsylvania Railroad, which could afford a protracted court battle.

Ultimately, civil lawsuits cost the PRR $15 million, the most of any accident in its 108 year history.

Joe Fitzsimmons never again operated a locomotive and retired early, in 1952 at age 59, due to injuries. He listed his principle disabilities as “heart condition, shock, traumatic injury to back, dislocated disk.”

Following his wife Grace’s death in 1957, Joe eventually remarried, and spent his days in his Point Pleasant home until his death in 1976 at age 83.

Once one of the most profitable companies in the world, the Pennsylvania Railroad faced increasing competition from interstate highways, and especially, from the Garden State Parkway and New Jersey Turnpike, which opened in the early 1950s.

After declaring bankruptcy in 1970, its incorporation into Conrail streamlined operations and shed PRR of redundant track properties. Once again profitable, it was sold to private sector ownership in 1987.

Daily Record coverage of the 50th anniversary of the Woodbridge Derailment, in which a number of survivors recounted their ordeals of Feb. 6, 1951. NJHGC Historic Newspaper Collection.

On Aug. 26, 2002, residents and town officials gathered on Main Street to dedicate a memorial to the 1951 rail disaster. It reads: “In memory of the 85 people who perished on Feb. 6, 1951, when a Pennsylvania Railroad commuter train derailed 1/4 mile south of this station, and in recognition of the Woodbridge residents and those of the surrounding communities who came to the aid of the injured.”

An early responder to the crash, Frank LaPenta, former vice president of the Historical Association of Woodbridge, led efforts to establish the monument.

Also attending the ceremony was Woodbridge Mayor Frank G. Pelzman. “People of this community kept this in the front of their minds, and this is a fitting tribute to the resiliency, the strength, and the fiber of the community and to those who responded to the this tragedy. The response of the community is what we are most proud of,” he said.

Sources:

Newspaper coverage of the Woodbridge Derailment is meticulously documented in the Daily Record collection available in the reading room of the North Jersey History & Genealogy Center. Additional historical newspapers used in the research of this article can be accessed by Morristown & Morris Township Library card holders via our Proquest database.

  • “Train was going too fast, no braking felt, conductor says,” Asbury Park Evening Press, 2/12/1951, pg 1
  • “Rescue workers kept busy at scene of P.R.R. wreck”, The Daily Home News, 2/7/1951, pg 15
  • “Removing bodies a gruesome task”, The Daily Home News, 2/7/1951, pg 15.
  • “Jurors visit wreck scene after hearing witnesses”, the Daily Home News”, 2/12/1951, pg1
  • “Interstate Train Wreck Probe Scored by Officials as ‘Disgrace’”, The Daily Home News, 2/12/1951
  • “Resident recalls deadly Woodbridge train wreck of 1951”, MyCentralJersey.com
  • “Fatal train wreck memorialized”, Courier News, 8/26/2002, B2
  • “Official Agrees distance to slow train insufficient”, Plainfield Courier News, 3/22/1951, p22
  • “Speed is blamed for PRR wreck”, the Daily Home News, New Brunswick, 3/28/1951, p16
  • Gordon Bond, Man Failure: the Story of New Jersey’s Deadliest Train Wreck, Garden State Legacy: Newark, NJ, 2017. The most extensive history of the Broker accident to date.

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