The moon was nearly full on the night of July 13, 1913, but what light there was barely reached the deep cut at Vineyard Junction where the Pacific Electric tracks from Santa Monica joined the line that passed the foot of the Venice pier.
Traffic was always heavy in July on the beach lines. On Sundays, trains built up of multiple cars might carry 15,000 passengers on the 50-minute ride from downtown to Venice and Santa Monica. "Flying specials" direct to downtown could make the return trip in 45 minutes.
That Sunday night, PE trains from the beach were especially crowded. A train made up of three cars passed John Wynkoop and his wife, so solidly packed that the Wynkoops chose to wait for a three-car "special" to arrive. It was just as full. The Wynkoops barely made it onto the open vestibule at the front of their car.
The aisle inside was shoulder-to-shoulder; no one could move. The elderly Wynkoops tried to get off at the next station, but the steps were crowded with passengers clinging to the handrails.
Ahead of the "special" were two other trains. One had left Santa Monica at 8:53 p.m., the other from Venice at 8:55. They were now stalled on a curve where the trains were nearly out of sight to the following "special." The overhead wire powering the trolleys had failed about 200 feet ahead.
The electric crack and bolt of light when the wire hit rails had jolted Dr. Harrington Marxmiller from sleep at his home nearby. He got up to investigate.
Some effort was being made to get the stalled trains on another track, but a few of the crowded riders took the delay as an opportunity to step off the trolleys and get a breath of air. The conductor of the train at the rear walked down the curve of with a flickering red-and-white signal lantern to warn the "special" that he presumed would be nearing the junction.
Trains were running tight that night, but no more than usual. The PE depended on motormen and conductors to manage heavy traffic. Most of the PE system lacked automated signals to alert a following train that the gap of time and distance was narrowing on a train ahead. There were no signals on the busy Venice line.
At about 9:40 p.m., the conductor heard and then saw the beach "special" rounding the curve where the two waiting trains were standing. He said later that he raised his signal lantern to warn the motorman to brake.
The "special" didn't appear to slow, John Wynkoop later told the Times. Other accounts vary.
Slowed or not, the impact of the oncoming train telescoped the front car of the "special" through the rear car of the stalled train, killing and maiming as it went. The Times reported "gaping flesh wounds, cut arteries, twisted limbs, scalps laid bare, and in one case an eye gouged out. ... Men, women and children were penned in, their limbs and bodies held imprisoned by the wreckage. ... (T)he car seats snapped from their fastenings and piled back, one upon the other, the passengers being caught as though in a vise."
Ultimately, four of the PE cars were piled together. Nearly 1,000 riders were involved in the wreck. At least 100 required emergency aid at the scene; 15 died (accounts also vary on the number of injured and killed).
The inaccessibility of the site kept more medical help and the police from getting to the injured for nearly two hours, and when they did reach the wreck, the rescuers had to struggle through crowds of onlookers. The surviving passengers had already begun clawing through the splintered wood of the car bodies with their bare hands in an attempt to pull the injured and dead from the wreckage.
Dr. Marxmiller, who arrived just five minutes after the crash, set fractures by candlelight and bandaged wounds with strips of torn women's petticoats.
The dead were laid in a row along the tracks. An unidentified woman was taken from the wreckage, her dead baby still in her arms, Sweethearts Veronica Miller and Merle Evans were instantly killed, the Times reported. Y. Gonmiguchi, one of five Japanese passengers, also died, as did Edward Murray of Toronto.
E.E. Arey, who died later, after physicians amputated his crushed legs, had hoped to return to Mexico to bring his wife and daughter out the chaos of the Mexican Revolution. John Sutherland Sinclair, 17th Earl of Caithness, died a year later weakened by his injuries and unnerved, it was reported, by witnessing the dismemberment of the woman sitting ahead of him on the train.
The badly shaken Wynkoops struggled up the embankment from the accident scene.
The Times editorialized four days later that the PE's President Paul Shoup should be commended for immediately ordering the installation of automatic signaling equipment on the Venice line (noting that this equipment was already in use by other interurban systems).
But the Times, in the fashion of its pro-business ideology, also offered excuses. The accident was in part the public's fault for demanding cheap, frequent rail service. Besides, booming of Los Angeles (for which the Times was the chief cheerleader) didn't have room for those who were particular about corporate citizenship:
The public demands rapid and frequent service, and what it demands it will have. It is not so exigent for safety as it should be. The railroad company has always been quick to respond to all reasonable demands, but it should be taken into account that the growth of Los Angeles has been so rapid, and its increase in population so enormous and continuous -- especially at the beaches -- that it has taxed the resources of the company and the untiring efforts of its officials to keep pace with the demand. It may be well not to forget that, while much has been expected by the public as individuals, yet the public as a mass has sometimes, under the leadership of political demagogues, evinced a disposition to harass all corporations, and especially railroad corporations, with unfriendly legislation and unreasonable demands.
Everyone blamed everyone else: the conductor, the motormen, the Pacific Electric management. Dr. Marxmiller told the coroner's jury that neighborhood residents had "protested to the City Council and to the railway company against the great speed of trains past the station. They seldom pay attention to the slow board and we have often remarked in the community that it is a wonder such an accident didn't happen before."
The majority of the coroner's jury recommended installation of automatic signals on the Venice line and found the railway company at fault for running trolleys with too little spacing and with poorly trained operators. The minority report agreed, but fixed additional blame on the conductor who was the rear-end flagman. He had, the report argued, not gone down the track far enough with his lantern or alerted the following train soon enough. A review of the accident by the State Railroad Commission in 1914 largely agreed.
The PE installed automatic signals and ordered its new cars to be redesigned with metal bodies. Wood cars, however, continued to run on the PE system, some of them until the mid-1920s.
A street in Woodland Hills was named years later in honor of Paul Shoup in recognition of his contributions to public transit. The Venice Line was abandoned in 1948 after decades of deferred maintenance. The line was converted to cheaper bus operation.