The wreckage of a deadly streetcar crash 100 years ago gave rise to a hospital and the Easter Seals Society
Good rarely comes from tragedy, but a deadly trolley car crash 100 years ago in
Elyria was an exception.
While the tragedy on Memorial Day in 1907 has faded from popular knowledge, the results have not, and the incident gave rise to what is now EMH Regional Medical Center and the Easter Seals Society, a national organization that works to help the disabled.
Memorial Day 1907
May 30, 1907, began, by all accounts, as a pleasant day in Elyria, with hundreds of residents crowding into the green trolley cars of the Cleveland and Southwestern Railway Co., better known as the Green Line, to head from the southern end of the city to holiday festivities downtown.
The trolleys, which traveled up and down Middle Avenue, were particularly busy because of the holiday. After streetcar No. 129 left the car barn on Middle Avenue and Oberlin Road and headed north on Middle Avenue, dispatchers called up streetcar No. 123 to pick up more people along the same route.
Car No. 123 was a newer model with a front end that was about 6 inches higher off the ground than older cars, like No. 129.
What happened next is still a matter of debate even a century later. Some historical accounts state that the driver of the No. 123 car, Charlie Frauendiener of Lakewood, thought he hit a dog and looked back, while others claim the driver was distracted by a dog’s carcass on the side of the road.
Whatever the truth, the dog proved enough of a distraction that Frauendiener didn’t notice he was about to slam into the back end of the 129 car at the corner of Middle Avenue and Fifth Street until the last moment.
When he did see the danger, Frauendiener slammed on the breaks, hoping to stop in time, but the two cars were already too close. Car No. 123 slammed into the back of car No. 129.
Frauendiener managed to leap to safety, but the impact carried car No. 123 into its older counterpart, severing limbs and feet and leaving a bloody trail for 200 feet until the two cars came to a stop.
Witnesses told reporters that the screams could be heard blocks away.
“The crash could be heard for several blocks … shrieks of the victims were heart wrenching… the crushed and mangled mass of humanity was horrible to behold… It was a terrible sight when people were pulled way from the wreck. They seemed to be ground up with the timbers at the backend of the car,” a witness told a Chronicle-Telegram reporter.
Victims were pulled from the wreckage and carried to nearby front lawns as ambulances and residents did their best to help and get them to nearby clinics, but the medical facilities at the time were not prepared for the onslaught of the injured.
About 100 passengers suffered debilitating injuries, many of them permanently losing their arms or legs. Among the nine fatalities was 18-year-old Homer Allen, the son of a prominent local businessman.
After Allen died from the loss of both of his legs, which were sheared off in the crash, his doctors told his father, Edgar Allen, that if a more adequate medical facility had been available they might have been able to save his son.
From that day forward, Allen dedicated his life to the creation of a hospital in Elyria.
Tragedy becomes a man’s devotion
The pain of losing a son prompted Allen to sell his business and devote his life to opening hospitals and providing services for the disabled. Within a year of the tragedy, Elyria Memorial Hospital opened its doors for the first time, in large part due to a $100,000 donation from Allen, who was named its first treasurer and manager.
Working at the new hospital, Allen was surprised to learn that children with disabilities were often hidden from public view and not able to receive the care they needed. With the aid of Ada Gates of Elyria, who offered up a sizable donation, Allen opened up the Gates Hospital for Crippled Children in 1915, the first organization of its kind in the country.
Four years later, the Gates Hospital was expanded and renamed the Nationwide Society for Crippled Children and Adults, which would later become known as the Easter Seals Society.
“Without this one incident,t it would be hard to say that we would have the hospital or Easter Seals,” said Mary Ellen Armentrout, medical librarian for EMH Medical Center. “It was the foundation of this hospital (and the) impetus for the creation of Easter Seals. It’s one of the city’s most important historical events.”
The area around the crash site would almost be unrecognizable to Elyrians who lived at the time of the crash. Gone are the large houses on Middle Avenue with wide front lawns where crash victims were carried. They’ve been replaced by smaller homes and commercial shops. Even the high school, which sat a few yards away from the accident site, has expanded and will soon be torn down and rebuilt as a modern structure.
For the past four months, Theresa Shea has been unearthing the history of the trolley crash, trying to pinpoint the spot where it took place and learning about the dozens of victims and heroes on that day.
She’s also learned about how Pat Crowe, a motorman on the No. 129 car, saw the other trolley coming and pulled three men to safety before the collision. She even learned that Cleveland police debated whether to turn Frauendiener over to Elyria police because they feared he would be the victim of mob justice.
It’s another fact that has nearly been lost to history, Shea said.
“He was afraid for his life,” she said. “This whole incident helped to shape Elyria and most people don’t really even know that it happened. Without that accident there might not be a hospital and that has been so important for the city.”
But Shea said she hasn’t discovered what exactly became of Frauendiener during her research.
To commemorate the tragedy, Shea and members of the South Elyria Neighborhood Development group have been working with City Council to set up a historic marker at the crash site.
“We want something to mark what happened there, something to preserve our history,” Councilman Tom Callahan, D-at large, said. “It’s easy to lose track of things that happened that long ago, and we don’t want that to happen.”
In concert with other city officials and members of SEND, Callahan said he is looking into what types of funding could be available for the memorial and what it should look like.
“It’s amazing what came out of that accident,” Shea said. “We can’t afford to forget about it now or in another 100 years.”
Members of SEND and several city officials, including Callahan, are planning to meet at the crash site Wednesday at 6 p.m. to commemorate the crash.
Contact Joe Medici at 329-7152 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
An archive photo of the doomed streetcar No. 123.