A runaway trolley loses it’s brakes and comes streaking down
the mountain out of control. One person leaps to their death and others are injured as it hits bottom. The trolley jumps the
track and is hurled airborne across the street before landing in an empty lot alongside a hotel. It sounds like a stunt taken
from the script of a Hollywood action movie. But this upcoming Wednesday June 24 marks the 103rd anniversary of a calamity
that actually occurred in West Orange. An ill fated attempt to conquer the steep grade of the Orange Mountains ended in total
failure. A misguided feeling of invincibility by man and his machine resulted in the most dramatic and infamous trolley accident
in West Orange history.
In the late 1880s construction began on a
cable railroad in West Orange from the Orange Valley to the top of the first mountain. It took five years to complete and
was known as the Cable Road. It began operations as the Orange Mountain Cable Company in 1892. A route was carved out of the
mountain about a mile long by which a cable pulled and lowered specially designed cars up and down the mountain. It began
on Valley Road opposite current day Wheatland Avenue. It ran straight up the mountain crossing Gregory Avenue and running
through a deep rock cut. It ended at the current day location of the tennis courts at Rock Spring Country Club. (A detailed
history of the Cable Road will be featured in a subsequent future article.) By 1898, due to financial difficulties, operations
ceased and it was reorganized as the Orange Mountain Traction Company. Shortly after operations resumed for a few more years
as a cable railroad but then terminated all together in 1902 and it’s future remained uncertain.
The Orange Mountain Traction Company ultimately decided that no profit existed in operating
a cable railroad. It shifted focus on converting to the emerging technology of the day of trolleys powered by overhead wires.
Advances in electricity and powerful traction motors seemed to hold more promise. It also offered the possibility of attracting
more customers by becoming part of an expanding network. Trolleys were more versatile and could reach areas cable cars could
not. Finally by 1906 after laying new rails and running overhead wires the company was ready to resume operations by running
trolleys straight up the mountain over the route of the old cable road.
questions were raised that the steepest part of the grade near the top might not be suited for trolleys. These concerns were
alleviated by company officials stating that the trolley cars were outfitted with a new patented safety braking system. Also
an auxiliary cable would be attached to the cars as an added safety precaution once they crossed Gregory Avenue before entering
the steepest part of the grade. This cable would not provide any pulling power but could catch the cars in event of brake
The two new trolley cars of the Orange Mountain Traction
Company were numbered 101 and 102. Company officials planned to test the new trolley on it’s first run before the line
would be opened to the public. On Sunday morning June 24, 1906 car 102 began the inaugural run up the mountain. Everything
seemed to be working fine as it approached Gregory Avenue without incident. At this location the car was to stop briefly so
that the auxiliary cable could be attached. However, the motorman decided to ignore this safety measure since the car was
rolling along swiftly and gaining momentum. It entered the steepest part of the grade without the auxiliary cable and relied
solely on the power of the traction motors and the new patented braking system. As it approached the big rock cut the grade
got steeper and wheels started to slip. The new brakes were applied but failed and car 102 began rolling back down the hill
out of control. One person jumped off at Gregory Avenue and was killed. Car 102 crashed into car 101 parked at the bottom
hurling it airborne across the street. It landed in an empty lot alongside D’Alessandro’s Hotel on Valley Road.
Both cars were completely destroyed and several others were injured. On the first day of operations the new line was forced
to close. The idea of trolleys ascending straight up the steep grade was quickly abandoned. A new safer switch back route
eventually began in 1908 until closing forever in 1914. D’Alessandro’s Hotel survives today as Quincy’s
Place Restaurant on Valley Road. An old stone wall alongside the inclined grade of Wheatland Avenue remains across the street
remains as the only visible evidence of the once majestic Cable Road. A DVD chronicling the construction and operation of
the early cable cars is available here at WestOrangeHistory.com. Click on the link below.