The Washerwoman’s Genes

April 26, 2011

Remote Explorations

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 8:11 am

I recently explored—by satellite, street view, and maps—Brook Avenue, the Bronx. My mother’s aunt and her family lived in the Bronx from the mid-1890s onward, and in 1910 were ensconced in a rental on this street. Today their address would be across from where the embankment of the Major Degan cuts through, where Brook Ave, the Bronx, essentially begins:

Brook Avenue really made an impact on me, though, and became more than one of those random streets of past-lives prowling, when I got the 1892 death certificate for my GGF Dan—an ancestor from my father’s, not my mother’s, line.

Brook Avenue was reported as his street of residence at the time of his death. His association with the Bronx was almost a stunner—my direct-line ancestors typically found Brooklyn their sufficient world. His wife, my GGM, returned home shortly, appearing in the 1893 Brooklyn Lain directory as his widow.

I didn’t intend it as a pun, but the phrase I used above, “impact on me,” embodies the horror I felt and continue to feel regarding Dan’s death.

I’ve written of it before, but only obliquely.*

I have always been a train person–always have lived where trains run through. I like them: the smell, the clang, the lurch, the rattle, the chopchop of the tickets, the voices–the ancient call of “All Aboard” and the double-speed rundown of stations.

There is a moment on a train ride when an opposite-traveling train blasts by, when the load of air pressure generated by one train meets that of the other, and the invisible collision of wind explodes into your ear. The sudden whomp, unheralded, shocks your system. The other train pours past yours a few inches from your face, on the just-next track, in a racket of wheels and steel, two sets of motors powering out-of-sync. By then you’re back to your reading, acting cool, pretending that you’ve not just had the tiniest intimation of what it’s like to be be hit by a train.


The address of Dan’s accident was noted as “154 St. and 4- Av” on the roughly written original death certificate. In a one-sentence report under “City and Suburban News” in The New York Times of March 12, 1892, the location where the body was found was said to be “One Hundred and Fifty-Second Street.” The Times also puts the death as “yesterday,” making it March 11. The original death certificate would seem to be the better authority in this case, for the address as well as the date.

It’s not a problem to find the cross street, but when I searched for Fourth Avenue in the Bronx I drew a blank.

For some time I was baffled about the location of the event. Recently finding a postcard from 1910 showing the intersection of 149th and Third Avenue set me rummaging again for a better sense of the accident venue.

Even today, this intersection is heavily commercial:

But this is THIRD avenue, and almost two decades later.

In 1892, the “Suburban Rapid Transit” ran in this corridor. You can see it  on this bit of 1893 Bronx map.  And you can see it is quite close to Brook Avenue.

The proximity of this line to Daniel’s home is misleading, though. This could not the right place—unless the street location of the incident was completely misreported, and Third Avenue was meant.

There’s an additional detail about the accident in the Coroner’s Inquest of March 12, 1892. (The inquest is a routine report performed for deaths occurring outside of a physician’s care. )

According to this report, Daniel died under the wheels of a “New York New Haven & Hartford Railroad Company Railroad” train. (This report also cites the cross street as 152nd, as in the Times.)

The NY, NH, & H ran on different track from the “Rapid Transit System,” in a Right-of-Way still used by Amtrak today. The corridor cuts northward, with a wide street as its eastern edge. To the west, there is  railroad property, inaccessible to the public.

In this 1893 map, the “New York Central” rail yards cover a vast area to the west of the tracks.

The eastern border is called both “Railroad Avenue” and “Vanderbilt Avenue.”  This runs west of Third Avenue, in the place where you’d expect Fourth Avenue to be. Of course, there is no Fourth Avenue in Manhattan, either: it’s Park Avenue.

And nowadays, what was Railroad or Vanderbilt Ave. in 1893 is also called Park Avenue:

I’ve found three names for this street, but no evidence that it was ever called “Fourth Avenue.” Still, in common parlance, “Fourth Avenue” would efficiently specify a distinct location, despite the name’s unofficial status.

Today, on street view, you find that both 152nd and 154th stop well east of Park, at Courtland Avenue or just west.  To come up to the vicinity of Dan’s accident, you have to “walk” up from 151st or down from 156th.

Foliage obstructs the track from the 154th Street and Park Avenue vantage point:

But at about 152nd Street, you can look clear across the tracks.

The land across the tracks at this point seems to be privately developed now. Satellite views show that the rail yard comprises only a triangle of ground at the southern end of what in the 1890s was a several-block-wide domain of the NY Central.

Identifying where the accident occurred does more than add detail to the scant story I have. That Daniel died along the tracks on the edge of the rail yard, a company-owned “no man’s land,” means one thing to me:

He was an employee.

I think this is a fair conclusion. He had been a conductor in 1890 in Brooklyn, according to the Lain Directory. In fact, I have his “chopper,” passed down from my grandpa to my dad to me. The move to the Bronx, a location where I have not found either he or Mary to have any family connections, suggests he found better paying work. His new family included not only his infant son, my grandfather, but his wife’s children by her first husband, as well as her mother, who is always found in the censuses as part of Mary’s household.

The simplest answer to this question would be to check employee records for the rail line, but as I wrote in my first go-round with this ancestor’s deadly accident, those records were discarded back in the 1970s.

*“Trains Passing in the Night,” Oct. 16, 2009


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