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Elevator Entrapments in the United States: 1880-1930

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Reports of passengers being caught had become fairly common in VT’s early days.

In 1880, a humorous short story titled “The Gay Widow” appeared in numerous American newspapers. The story recounted the experiences of two people “trapped” in a hotel elevator.[1] The story also marked one of the first uses of a stalled elevator as a literary setting or plot device. This choice by the story’s unknown author was likely predicated on the assumption that their audience would be familiar with the idea that people could become trapped in elevators. This, of course, also suggests that by 1880 elevator entrapments were common enough that they had become an accepted part of the culture of vertical transportation (VT). Over the next 50 years, these types of events were regularly reported in newspapers across the United States. In fact, during this period the press reported more than 80 instances of elevator entrapment. Unfortunately, due to a lack of comprehensive national data, it is impossible to know what percentage of the total number of entrapments these represent. The information found in newspaper accounts also varied. Most accounts included the number of passengers involved, the length of time the elevator was stopped, and the nature of any rescue attempts. However, less than half of the articles identified the cause of the stoppage. Nonetheless, the assembled material was sufficient to permit general observations about the character of these events, and to provide new insights about elevator use and operation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

One consistent aspect of these accounts is the characterization of the people involved in a given incident. In almost every case, and in many story headlines, the focus was on the number of trapped “passengers.” However, the majority of these elevators also had operators. The operators were almost always referred to in a manner that differentiated them from the passengers. This is a reminder that the operator was, in essence, perceived as part of the machinery and was an accepted and expected feature. If the operator was mentioned, it was typically to highlight their inability to restart the stalled car. However, in several accounts it was clear that the absence of an operator was the cause of the entrapment. One such incident, which received national press coverage, involved U.S. Rep. William D. Upshaw of Georgia. Upshaw and a friend had stopped by the building housing his congressional office, and they found that “the elevator man had gone home.”[2] The pair entered the car, and Upshaw’s friend “gave the control lever a push.”[2] The result of this action was that the car rose to the top of the shaft, stopped, and failed to respond to the lever. After approximately 30 minutes, the stranded pair’s cries for help attracted the attention of “office building attendants who knew something about operating elevators,” and they were rescued.[2]

Upshaw’s ability to call for help — and be heard — was made possible by the design characteristics of elevator cars and shaft enclosures during this period. Many of the so-called “birdcage” cars featured decorative open metal work walls, and many shafts were enclosed in a similar manner. Thus, passengers could see out and, if needed, communicate with people “on the outside.” The relative openness of the car and shaft, however, had another impact on entrapments. While the experience was less overtly claustrophobic than being trapped in a modern elevator, the open character of the car and shaft also made some entrapments a public spectacle. An 1895 account of a stalled elevator in Knoxville, Tennessee’s Imperial Hotel illustrated the challenges occasionally faced by trapped passengers. In this entrapment: “When the elevator was half way between the first and second floor the fuse blew out and the elevator, being of the modern safety pattern, came to a halt.”[3] Because the car was filled with only male passengers, a newspaper reporter, prior to recounting their experience, asked his readers a simple rhetorical question: “Are men in such a predicament usually treated in a serious way by their fellowmen who may find them thus?”[3] The answer was: “Hardly ever, nor were these.”[3] The allegedly good-natured remarks made by other hotel guests included: “I’ve traveled all over the globe and been to every zoological garden, but damme, if I ever saw a cage of animals who look like that.”[3] There were, of course, reports of other entrapments where onlookers offered encouragement, support and food and drink. In one case, an entrapment gave a client an opportunity to finally conduct business with an attorney who had previously been too busy to schedule a meeting.[4]

One consistent aspect of these accounts is the characterization of the people involved in a given incident. In almost every case, and in many story headlines, the focus was on the number of trapped “passengers

An important observation made about the Knoxville hotel entrapment was that the elevator was “of the modern safety pattern” and that, after it lost power, it had safely come “to a halt.”[3] All of the accounts found during this investigation that referenced a car “falling” or “slipping” down a shaft reported that the car was successfully stopped by the action of the elevator’s safeties. Additionally, only one report mentioned injuries to passengers. In 1897 an “overloaded elevator” carrying 11 passengers and an operator in Pittsburgh’s Fidelity Title Building dropped from the fifth floor to halfway between the second and third floors before the safety activated. The “descent was checked so suddenly that the passengers were thrown about in every direction and all of them were bruised. The chandelier was also broken to pieces, and several persons were cut by glass.”[5] In addition to the chandelier, the car’s glass skylight also shattered. The latter event provided an escape route for the passengers who “were taken out through the roof of the cage as all of the windows had been broken out.”[5] This account prompts several questions: How often did elevator failures occur due to overloaded cars? What was the average number of passengers per car? and, When rescue was needed, how were passengers typically removed from cars?

Duration No. of Occurrences
6-7 minutes 1
15 minutes 5
20 minutes 2
30 minutes 9
45 minutes 3
1 hour 10
2 hours 8
3 hours 6
4 hours 2
5 hours 1
10 hours 2
12 hours 1
22 hours 1

Table 1: Duration of Elevator Entrapments, 1880-1930

While one other account stated that the stalled car had been “loaded to utmost capacity,” no reports specifically attributed the cause of an entrapment to the car’s weight.[6] The collected reports did reveal that many buildings either had very large cars or that passengers were accustomed to crowding into elevators. Seventeen entrapments involved cars carrying multiple people: a low of 10; a high of 21; and an average of 15 people per car (these figures include passengers and operators). The means of rescue or escape depended on the nature of the entrapment. In cases where the car doors could be pried open, escape was dependent on the position of the car relative to a nearby landing. If there was a sufficient gap between either the top or bottom of the car door opening and the landing, passengers would crawl or climb out. The inherent danger of this means of escape was never mentioned in an entrapment account. The only reference to the questionable nature of these actions appeared in a short story published in 1921, which concerned a male passenger and operator. After the elevator had stalled, the building’s electrician was summoned to provide assistance. He succeeded in opening the shaft door such that a small gap made escape possible. Upon seeing the gap the passenger shouted: “Stand back and lemme out of this!” and he started to “climb up the side of the car like a squirrel.”[7] At this point the electrician offered a suggestion: “Mister, I wouldn’t try to crawl through there if I was you.”[7] In response to the passenger’s question of “Why not?” the electrician said: “Because the car might drop and bite you in two!”[7] The passenger wisely decided not to exit the car through the gap and to wait for assistance.

When a car was stuck such that passengers could not escape via the doors, the default exit point was the roof. Between 1880 and 1910, it was common for firemen involved in rescue efforts to have to chop a hole in the car’s roof in order to create an escape route. One of the first references to a roof “hatch” was found in a 1905 account of an entrapment in a New York apartment building that involved a well-known actress: “At last the janitor climbed down and unscrewed the top hatch of the elevator. Then he got a small stepladder and thrust it down. Miss Kimball climbed to the top of the elevator by stepladder, squeezed through the hole, the janitor pulled the ladder up, set it again, and she was hauled through the elevator shaft door to the fourth floor.”[8] When safety hatches became commonplace, rescues followed the same pattern: shaft doors were pried open and ladders were used to help passengers escape. Missing from these accounts were descriptions of measures taken to ensure that the car could not move during the rescue. Additionally, only four accounts mentioned that professionals associated with an elevator company had been summoned to aid in the rescue attempt, or repair the problem that had caused the entrapment.

When safety hatches became commonplace, rescues followed the same pattern: shaft doors were pried open and ladders were used to help passengers escape.

In fact, the entrapment’s cause was only referenced in approximately 40% of the accounts, and the majority concerned power failures or blown fuses, problems that were common with early electric elevators. Another modern complication was the invention of automatic push button elevators, which were installed in large residences and settings where operators were not perceived as needed. This new technology occasionally failed for unexpected reasons. In 1913, a push button elevator in the Belasco Theater Building in New York stalled due to what might be termed “passenger error.” Five actors entered the car, and one pushed the button for their destination. Looking at the button panel, an actress commented: “That would be a nice thing for children to play with.”[9] In response to this comment, a male actor “playfully fingered all the buttons.”[9] As a result of his actions, the car stopped between floors and could not be restarted for 30 minutes.

A final critical aspect of entrapments is also the piece of information that dominated newspaper headlines and that everyone wanted to know first: how long were the people trapped? Approximately 50 accounts provided information on the duration of the entrapment. The shortest interval was six to seven minutes, and the longest was 22 hours (see Table 1). The longest entrapments tended to occur in the evening when buildings were essentially empty except for janitorial staff and night watchmen. The 22-hour entrapment, which involved a housekeeper trapped in a private residential elevator in Philadelphia in 1906, occurred when the housekeeper was preparing for the family’s return from their summer home and she was alone in the house.[10] The length of her entrapment was due, in part, to the fact that she had no means of calling for help. The absence of an emergency telephone at this time was, however, not surprising and, in fact, their presence was considered a novelty. A 1918 article titled “Odd News From Everywhere” highlighted this fact: “The Maine State House is the only place in the United States where passengers can talk over the telephone as they ride … (once) when the elevator got stuck between floors, the elevator girl got help through the telephone in a few moments, being more fortunate than two men in Portland who passed seven hours of the night between floors because there was no telephone in the elevator.”[11]

This brief examination of the history of elevator entrapments is one aspect of a broader investigation of elevator use. Issues that were not addressed include the use of elevators by firefighters and the use of elevators as fire escapes — both uses that often resulted in entrapments that occurred as the result of mechanical failures due to fire. While mechanical faults associated with electric elevators were often identified, problems associated with other systems, such as hydraulic elevators, remain unexplored. The question of who manufactured these elevators is another unexplored data point. Future articles will continue this exploration, asking more questions and expanding the time period under investigation in order to track the influence of the A17 code on preventing and responding to entrapments.

References

[1] “A Gay Widow,” Bismarck Tribune, July 2, 1880, p. 6.

[2] “Upshaw is Trapped in Elevator Cage,” Miami Herald, January 16, 1924, p. 1.

[3] “Stopped Between Floors,” Knoxville Journal and Tribune, October 11, 1895, p. 1.

[4] “Stuck in an Elevator, Los Angeles Evening Express, September 8, 1898, p. 5.

[5] “Cage Dropped,” Pittsburgh Press, June 5, 1897, p. 1.

[6] “Crowd in Elevator Had Narrow Escape,” Fort Wayne Sentinel, May 25, 1904, p. 10.

[7] “All Sorts by Newton Newkirk: Trapped in an Elevator,” Boston Post, August 8, 1921, p. 6.

[8] “Stuck in the Elevator,” Harrisburg Daily Independent, March 16, 1905, p. 4.

[9] “Five Noted Stagefolk Trapped in Elevator,” Baltimore Evening Sun, May 12, 1913, p. 6.

[10] “Woman Trapped in Elevator for Nearly a Day,” Philadelphia Inquirer, August 23, 1906, p. 1.

[11] “Odd Items from Everywhere,” Fall River Globe, December 19, 1918, p. 11.

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Dr. Lee Gray, professor of Architectural History and senior associate dean of the College of Arts + Architecture at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, has written more than 200 monthly articles on the history of vertical transportation (VT) for ELEVATOR WORLD since 2003. He is also the author of From Ascending Rooms to Express Elevators: A History of the Passenger Elevator in the 19th Century. He also serves as curator of theelevatormuseum.org, created by Elevator World, Inc.

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