The Archivist’s Nook: Roving Students Save Rector from Wreck

Brookland Streetcar
Let’s face it. That night, the trolley would have been the better choice for Rector Denis O’Connell.

Catholic University, Fall 1904: Unpaved roads. No streetlights. A moonless November evening. A horse and buggy, and a wobbly trolley car. A formula for disaster? As it turns out, that night it was. But guess what? A fearless group of wandering CUA undergrads saved the day!

The first thing you need to know about this tale is that Trinity College was established across the street from Catholic University in 1897 to educate young women. At that time, CUA educated only men, and these were mostly diocesan priests and members of religious orders. In fact, many faculty members walked back and forth across Michigan Avenue, teaching at both CUA and Trinity. But the dynamic changed when CUA’s first male undergrads arrived in 1904. There was all manner of fretting over these young men fraternizing inappropriately with Trinity women (and vice-versa). One night, a group of men could be heard serenading the girls at Trinity outside their windows. No one ‘fessed up to the crime and the perps managed to escape with their pipes intact, but Rector Denis O’Connell (1903-1909) let it be known that no CUA men were allowed outside the dorm after 10 p.m. at night.

 CUA Rector Denis O’Connell
Third CUA Rector Denis O’Connell ran a tight ship. But he couldn’t control a maniacal trolley car on the night in question.

So you can imagine the dilemma that our three heroes faced on that late November evening when they witnessed Rector O’Connell’s terrible accident. They emphatically insisted that they were not out of the dorm that night for any manner of wooing of Trinity students. And I, for one, believe them. Why? Two things: history and engineering.

On this particular evening, Frank Kuntz, Leo Smyth, and George Canale decided they would take a walk over to the Soldiers Home. “The Soldiers Home,” as it was and is still informally called (the actual name is the Armed Forces Retirement Home) was established in 1851 as a home for retired military veterans. The property includes, among other things, Anderson Cottage (now called President Lincoln’s Cottage), a house where presidents and their families in need of an escape from the hubbub of inner Washington D.C. sojourned for the cool breezes and fresh air. Most famously, Abraham Lincoln and his family enjoyed much time there, but the place was also used by Presidents Chester Arthur, James Buchanan, and Rutherford Hayes. Indeed, President Lincoln wrote the first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation at the Cottage in 1862. Who wouldn’t want to visit such a storied place?

Postcard, ca. early 1900s.  Soldiers’ Home on the right.
Postcard, ca. early 1900s. Soldiers’ Home on the right. Lincoln family getaway, center.

That’s the history part. The other fact is that many of CUA’s first undergrads were attracted to the university’s engineering program, which was highly regarded and featured wind tunnelist Albert Zahm. Many majored in this field, and most students took courses in civil, electrical, and mechanical engineering. As our budding engineers walked down Michigan Avenue toward the Soldiers Home they ran into the old McMillan Reservoir, when it was under construction in 1904. They told a watchman they wanted to see the progress being made on the sand filtration plant and the guard shooed them away and told them last time he “fell for such a trick several tools disappeared.”[i] So they turned back onto Michigan, realized the roads were pitch black, and figured they’d better get back to the dorm pronto rather than continue the outing to the Soldiers Home property. They decided to follow the trolley tracks to find their way.

They inched forward slowly in the darkness, hoping some rig with a lantern or a headlight might pass them and offer them a light on the path home. Soon, a horse drawn buggy with a lantern dangling from its axle began to overtake them. The buggy, in turn, was being overtaken by a trolley car much like the one in the photo above, only this one had a headlight on it, and the headlight lit up who was in the horse drawn rig. As one of the students recounted:

Portrait of Law School's Class of 1907.  Hiram Gallagher, Brawner Hefeld, Frank A Kuntz (President), John C. Moran
One of our heroes, Frank Kuntz, center, reputation decidedly intact, in this photo of CUA’s first undergraduate class, 1907.

As the rig overtook us, a sweep of the approaching trolley car’s headlight showed us that it was a cab, that the passenger was a priest, that the priest was—oh, horror of horrors!—the Rector, returning from an important trip to Chicago! If he saw and recognized us, he would assume that we had been serenading Trinity![ii]

Fearing for their careers at CUA, the boys turned their backs on the Rector’s cab. The cab passed the boys. But the trolley lurched behind it, hitting the cab and sending it, the Rector, and the horse hurtling over the steep bank along the road. Screaming ensued. The three boys went over the bank and sadly, found the horse dead, but happily, the Rector alive. However, he was nearly unconscious and in obvious pain when the boys knelt to carry him home. After ensuring that Rector O’Connell was safely ensconced in Caldwell under the care of several residents and a doctor, the boys skedaddled back to the dorm, hoping that neither the Rector nor Caldwell’s residents would remember their rescuing him. As it turned out, the story of the Rector’s wreck was big news in the local paper and on campus the next day. But the boys, alas, had to bite their tongues, as the last thing they wanted to be charged with was the surreptitious serenading of the girls at Trinity on the night of the Rector’s wreck!

[i] Frank Kuntz, Undergraduate Days, 1904-1907 (Catholic University of America Press), 26-29.

[ii] Kuntz, Undergraduate Days, 28.

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