“The Merry-Andrew of the Bergen Tunnel”

January 21, 1865

artist unknown

“The Merry-Andrew of the Bergen Tunnel”

Business, Railroads; New York City, Transportation; Public Safety; Transportation, Railroads;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.

New York City;

No caption

This grim Harper’s Weekly cartoon reveals the existence in the 1860s of serious concerns for public safety on the passenger railroads of the New York City region.

After the presidential election of 1864 and as the Civil War drew to a close in April 1865, public health and safety concerns regained prominence in the pages of Harper’s Weekly. Editorials, news stories, illustrations, and cartoons reported the deaths caused by the alleged negligence of railroad and steamship management or workers, comparing the accidents to “murder,” “manslaughter,” and “slaughter.” Railroad travel, according to the newspaper, was becoming increasingly hazardous, particularly in the winter months.

Editor George William Curtis suggested a strategy to improve the situation. He encouraged newspapers to publicize poorly-run railroads and steamships, and for passengers to sue the companies for negligence. Furthermore, he called for the state legislatures to regulate them. In the case of New Jersey, however, Curtis endorsed congressional regulation because he believed that the New Jersey state legislature was too dominated by the railroad companies to pass effective safety laws.

This cartoon reminds readers of a recent accident in the train tunnel to Bergen, New Jersey, across the Hudson River from New York City. Every day, hundreds of passenger trains passed through the Bergen Tunnel, owned by the Erie Railroad Company. It was a 4400 foot-long, unlit cavern with no signalmen assigned to it. The accident which promoted this cartoon occurred when a train broke down just before emerging from the tunnel. The only safety precautions taken were a colored lantern hung on the caboose and flares set on the track. Another train’s engineer, seeing or hearing nothing, barreled into the back of the disabled train.

In the cartoon, death is doubly emphasized by the skull-shaped tunnel and the skeleton which floats within it. The foolishness of the danger is communicated by using the term “Merry-Andrew,” which means clown or buffoon. The accident’s commonplace nature is announced by the sign over the tunnel, “Here We are Again!” The second editorial of this issue discusses the accident under the headline “More Railroad Murders,” referring to the passengers as “slaughtered sheep in that dark den.”

Robert C. Kennedy

“The Merry-Andrew of the Bergen Tunnel”
December 6, 2023

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