The Day the Children Died: A Kingston Tragedy
The collective memories of a community define a town’s history. Events blend together to create an identity and that intangible sense of “place”. When critical events are forgotten a community looses a bit of itself. Several years ago while interviewing Margaret Warnsman for a story I was writing she happened to mention in passing a tragic accident resulting in the deaths of “three or four” children.
Margaret didn’t witness the event, but she was on hand a few days later at the townhouse when Mrs. Boreach, the mother of one of the victims became hysterical after her daughter had just been laid to rest in the Evergreen Cemetery (adjacent to the old town hall).
“It was awful and nothing anyone could say was a comfort to the grieving mother,” Margaret explained. Margaret wasn’t sure of the date but thought it to be sometime between 1920 and 1924.
As an amateur Kingston History buff, the story startled me. I had never encountered any hint of such a tragedy. I knew the story of the ‘Lady of the Lake’. Back in June of 1877 five people (two adults and three children) lost their lives as a result of a steam explosion in the ship’s boiler. If that bit of history could remain in community memory for nearly 130 years, surly the knowledge of an 83 year-old accident, which resulted in the deaths of several Kingston school children, could not be forgotten. Margaret’s passing reference was a complete shock. Not even Doris Johnson Melville’s excellent book, Major Bradford’s Town: A History of Kingston contained any reference to the calamity.
Thanks to information and clues provided by Margaret, this is the story of the day the children died:
According to the Old Colony Sentinel, “the saddest accident which has ever occurred in Kingston” took place on the afternoon of Monday, September 26th, 1921. Summer vacation was a fading memory and Kingston schools had been back in session for several weeks. The baseball season was winding down and on that day Babe Ruth, the former Red Sox player now with the Yankees hit homeruns 57 & 58 to beat the Indians 8-7. Sometime shortly after three o’clock, the electric trolley, known as the ‘school car’ had just passed the Grove street intersection and was making its way up Pembroke Street on Route 27.
On this particular day the trolley had a lighter than normal passenger load. Usually it carried thirty-six school children to their homes in Northwest Kingston. But several students had been detained after school, a group of others stayed behind to watch a ball game, and still more had been kept home by illness. In all twenty children were aboard the ill-fated vehicle.
The trolley was classified as a “one man” electric car. When streetcars were first introduced, they had always carried a two-man crew: A “motorman” to operate the car and a “conductor” to collect fares and give the signal to start or stop. The presence of a second crewmember provided a measure of safety should something happen to the motorman or the vehicle. Two-man cars were uneconomical and expensive to operate and by the end of First World War, streetcar companies like the Plymouth and Brockton Electric Railroad Company began to utilize the services of “one man cars” to cut costs. In single crewed cars the operator also doubled as conductor and collected fares, much as is common on buses today.
Arthur S. Hertle, a US Navy veteran, was at the controls. He had been with the company for five years and had the reputation of being a “careful driver”. As his vehicle crossed the bridge over the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad (near today’s new fire station) disaster struck. For reasons unknown, the connector arm of the trolley “jumped the wire” and slammed into the high voltage line running parallel to the lower voltage feed wire for the electric car. The 13,200-volt high-tension line short-circuited and snapped in an explosive shower of cascading sparks. One end of the live wire hit the roof of the school car before coming to rest at the base of the exit step and alongside the trolley. The vehicle became charged with deadly current and the ground in its immediate vicinity became a death strip.
As thousands of volts of electricity surged through the car, lighting fixtures exploded, smoke and panic filled the interior. According to the Old Colony Sentinel, “the children became terror stricken.”
One can only imagine the awful din created by twenty frightened and terrorized children as they frantically tried to scramble to safety. Motorman Hertel shouted instructions over the screams of his passengers as he desperately tried to restore calm and lead the students to safety. In the chaos of the burning trolley, amid the rumbling hum of electricity, four children either failed to hear the motorman’s warnings or were too panicked to follow his directions.
Third grader Richard Sloan and two young girls leaped from the car and met “instant death” as they came into contact with the live wire. Another young girl lowered herself out of one of the trolley’s windows and dropped to the ground and the deadly wire below. As she landed directly on top of the high voltage line and the force of the electric explosion hurled her lifeless body beneath the burning trolley. According to press reports of the time, sixteen other children were lead to safety by Hertel. After leading the surviving children to safety Hertle returned and was nearly electrocuted when he tried to “remove one of the little bodies from the live wire”.
Medical Examiner Dr. N. K. Noves of Duxbury arrived at the scene shortly after the accident and is reported to have told the Old Colony Sentinel that the children’s deaths were “doubtless instantaneous”.
Jennie Boreach, 8 years old and daughter of Mr. And Mrs. Frank Boreach of Pembroke Street. Rev. Charles F. Andrews of the First Parish Church conducted a committal service as she was laid her to rest in the Old Burial Ground. Jennie was an only child and had been a student in the upper primary school.
Ruth L. Mills, age 7, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Wallace was buried in St. Joseph cemetery after a funeral at St. Joseph’s church. Ruth had also been a student in the upper primary school.
Natalie Robbins, age 13, daughter of Alton O. and Caroline (Goddard) Robbins. Her funeral service was conducted by Rev. A. M. Fowler of the Plymouth Baptist Church at the North Plymouth home of her grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Frank Goddard. Natalie was a seventh grade student at the Maple Avenue School.
Richard M. Sloan, age 8, son of Mr. and Mrs. Louis Sloan was buried in the Evergreen Cemetery after services conducted by Rev. Christian Groetzinger of the Mayflower Church. Richard had been a student at the upper primary school.
According to accounts in the Old Colony Sentinel, students and teachers along with the school superintendent and representatives of the school board attended the funerals of the dead students and, “a deep gloom has been cast over the entire town by the catastrophe.”
The fact that this horrific accident had all but faded from the pages of history demonstrates the fickle and fragile nature of community memory. It was only a chance remark by Margaret that allowed this writer to rekindle the memory of a nearly forgotten tragedy. It would be unfortunate if the passing years once again erase the names of the young people lost on that day.
At the new ballfield complex on Pottle Street there is a beautifully constructed and lovingly dedicated Peace Garden. It was created to keep alive the memories and names of “Kingston children taken before their time.” With this in mind, it would be wonderful and fitting if the organizers who gave life to Kingston’s garden of memory could also make arrangements to add the names of the four children who perished 83 years ago this September. The cost to inscribe the names on four small stone bricks could be raised in a single day with special collections from each of the four Kingston churches mentioned above.