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Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Hartford Railroad Disaster, 1887

It was a bitter cold morning, somewhere around 15 to 18 degrees below zero, when the Boston-Montreal Express train left White River Junction bound for Montreal.  This was just a couple of months over 128 years ago, and it remains the State's worst railroad disaster on record.

Apparently, the train began the journey from White River some 2 hour and 20 minutes late. It is not clear if the reason for it's tardiness was the cold, or mechanical problems, for in my research, I could not find out why it was delayed.  

Shortly after leaving the junction, traveling only 4.2 miles, it began to cross the White River on West Hartford Bridge.  It has been written that the train itself began to "sway" with the back carriage's feeling the brunt of the momentum, it came off the tracks bringing the rest of the train, as well as the bridge, with it.  It tumbled into the icy cold river below, catching fire on the way down.  

Actual photo, 1887

As I read this horrific account from vermonthistory.org, in my mind's eye, I visualized the demise of the White Star Line's "Titantic", which occurred in 1912.  I associated the Hartford Bridge disaster, though on a much smaller scale, with the ship, because of the bitter cold water to which the train plunged, and many lost their lives.   

The following post contains a detailed account as to what happened on this sad night and all of the information is taken directly from vermonthistory.org - (if you click the link, it will bring you to the same story, with more information about the investigation, etc., following this event).  I should tell you that that the actual cause of the disaster has never been determined.

The steel bridge which replaced the bridge destroyed by fire. 

"The passengers aboard the train that early February morning were an eclectic group. Henry Tewksbury, lawyer, Dartmouth alumnus, and noted lecturer, had the previous evening given a lecture in Windsor about the Gettysburg battle and was returning to his home in Randolph. Some twenty individuals were returning from New England to the Canadian provinces of Québec and Ontario, and the city of Montreal.

New York City businessman Louis Combremont was on board for Montreal. Three Boulanger children, Bennie, Francis, and Anastasia, from Holyoke, Massachusetts, appear to have been traveling by themselves but may have been accompanied by David Maigret and his son Joseph, who were going from Holyoke to their home in Shawinigan, Québec. French names were common among the passengers, most of them coming from New England mill towns: Winooski, Nashua, Manchester, Lawrence, Chicopee Falls, and Lowell. Dartmouth student Edward Dillon from Springfield, Vermont, was on board with his college roommate, Alvin Veazey, son of a prominent Vermont juror and trustee of Dartmouth College. They were somewhat surprised to find the train at the station in the early morning hours and on the spur of the moment thought it a good idea to travel to Burlington. Annie Murphy and Katie Cahill, of Boston address, were bound for service in Burlington, in the employ of Mr. James Stone, also on board. Fred Tuttle of Tunbridge was on his way home, perhaps coming up from Windsor, one of the stops on his teamster route. 

One of the more well-known names was Frank Wesson of Springfield (Mass.), a member of the Wesson family of Smith & Wesson, the firearms manufacturer. 

Not everyone on board was asleep; although both sleepers were filled, people in the coaches were trying their best to get as comfortable as possible on the firm cushions. Now fully loaded, the sleeper “Pilgrim” had twenty-five occupants, including “five ladies”; and the other sleeper, “St. Albans,” probably had the same approximate number.  In the second coach at Bellows Falls were noted “7 ladies, 2 small boys and 18 men, making 27 in all”; with some of the men in the smoking car and other passengers in the other coach, the total of 103 passengers can be accounted for.

The porters had done their job well, the cast iron “Baker” stoves were laid with coal and stoked, providing as much heat as they could along the lengths of the un-insulated wooden cars. Whale oil and kerosene lamps flickered evenly for those who were still in need of illumination.  In one of the coaches a four-handed game of whist was being played. Outside the temperature had fallen to −18° F. It was a cloudless night, fully lit by moonlight. 

The crew that night was made up of experienced railroad personnel.  The engineer was Charles H. Pierce of Hartford, an employee of the Central Vermont for twenty-two years, nine as engineer. With him in the cab was fireman Frank Thresher of St. Albans. The conductors of the train were Smith C. Sturtevant of St. Albans and M.R. Burgess of Boston. Edward Banks (or Brocklebanks) of West Lebanon, New Hampshire, and George H. Parker were brakemen. A.J. Hammer of Malden, Massachusetts, and J.H. Jones of Boston were the two porters. In the baggage car was Cole and in the mail/smoker were Perkins, Armington, and express messenger Robbins: twelve crew in all.

The Central Vermont tracks out of White River Junction closely follow the western side of the White River to the point where they take a more northward bend, requiring a 33° turn to the right (east) as the river crossing is approached. The bridge, entirely of wooden construction was known as a “deck bridge” and was 650 feet long with four major 145 foot spans, and a smaller sixty to seventy-foot span at the north abutment, crossing over the road below (Route 14). The distance from the top of the track to the ice-covered river below measured forty-two feet, with the trusses themselves sixteen feet from the surface. On top of the wooden trusses was a layer of sheet iron, placed between the rails and ties and the supporting structure, an apron to deflect any sparks from the locomotive’s belching smokestack. Ironically, what had been designed to protect the bridge from fire contributed to its ultimate demise. 

In spite of the need to make up time due to the late departure and to meet the scheduled passing of the southbound Montreal express at Randolph, the engineer reported that he slowed the train in accordance with standard practice, making the crossing at about twelve miles per hour. The first indication that something was wrong was reported by Henry Tewksbury. There was a “swaying of the car back and forth, and a jolting, and I knew the wheels were running along the sleepers [ties].”4 He was with his friend, conductor Sturtevant, who had just returned to the coach after checking fares in the smoking section. They immediately pulled on the overhead cord attached to a bell in the engine, signaling engineer Pierce to make an emergency stop. Upon hearing the alarm Pierce looked to the rear of the train on his, or right, side and was startled to see the rearmost sleeper, “Pilgrim,” teetering off the bridge and heading for the river below, dragging with it the adjacent sleeper “St. Albans” and the two coaches from the middle of the train.

The coupling broke apart where it joined with the mail/smoker car, leaving the engine and tender, baggage car and mail/smoker unit intact on the bridge. Flames quickly erupted, enveloping the four coaches and like a flaming torch reaching to the bridge above. What was at first shock, disbelief, darkness, and confusion soon became an inferno visible for miles in the Vermont countryside. There had been no warning other than some vibration, a shudder, and no doubt the squeal of tortured metal, then the awful sense of tumbling into the space below. It all happened so quickly no alert other than the alarm bell was possible." 

Only the front of the train survived. The disaster killed 37 people and injured 50.  After the crash, a nearby barn became a makeshift trauma unit where some of the injured survivors died. The barn still stands, and passersby have heard crying coming from there. The area where the bridge stood has been known to emit the smell of burning wood. Some see a ghostly manifestation of Conductor Sturtevant, believed to be patrolling the bridge to prevent another accident. Others see the ghost of a young child in 19th century clothing, hovering above the river, staring at where the crash occurred.

In the doomed coaches, scenes of death and escape were taking place. Dartmouth students Veazey and Dillon were cast out of their shared sleeping berth, Veazey only slightly injured, his roommate fatally pinned under debris. Mrs. W.S. Bryden, retired for the night in her sleeping berth, was barely able to be extricated through a broken window, only, she said, because she had practically no clothes on. That she survived in the bitter cold under the circumstances is a marvel of her determination and stamina, as well as a tribute to her rescuers. A father from Canada, probably David Maigret, was so pinned down in the wreck he was unable to get out, and gave his personal belongings, watch, and pocketbook to his young son and bade a tearful good-bye before the creeping wall of flames engulfed him. Conductor Sturtevant had taken a fare in one of the coaches and went down with it, suffering severe burns, a mangled shoulder and arm, and a crushed head. Death came mercifully the next day. Some passengers were identified by bits and remnants of clothing or personal gear; others, not at all. One of the most heart-rending remains was that of a parent and child fused together in a final poignant embrace, burned beyond immediate recognition.

The stunned crew members in the remaining units on the bridge reacted immediately to the catastrophic descent. Engineer Pierce, shovel and lantern in hand, with his fireman, Thresher, jumped from the cab and slid down the embankment to the broken heaps of the four coaches. Brakeman George Parker, who was on the second coach, had correctly assessed the vibrations and jolting and leaped from the coach before it went over, sliding down the bank at the south abutment. He then took a team from a nearby house and brought the alarm to the White River Junction station and the community. In no time fires started in the demolished wooden coaches. 

Pierce shoveled snow in a vain attempt to put out the flames, but they were increasing at a faster rate than his efforts could overcome. His next action was to break windows to get survivors out of the flaming wreckage; eight made it out thanks to his efforts. This was most likely the Boston coach, the unit nearest to the mail coach, and was probably the first in line that he came to. 

Conductor Sturtevant was in this coach, clothes ablaze, and Pierce tried to douse the flames by showering him with snow. Henry Tewksbury was also in that coach and was luckier; he got out, but with difficulty and with injuries he suffered from for the rest of his days. Others were not so fortunate; there was “darkness and confusion, the smoke was “dense and the fire burned rapidly.”

No sounds came from the stricken coach as Pierce and Thresher continued their efforts. At the other end of the piled-up coaches, or what was left of them, the two mail agents, Armington and Perkins, and the express messenger, Robbins, worked with baggage master Cole to extricate passengers, some of whom pitched in to do what they could. By now the flames were clearly threatening the bridge, so Pierce had Thresher move the engine and remaining cars forward and well clear of the bridge. 

From the moment of derailment, toppling off the bridge and onto the frozen river and with flames reaching upward to the wooden lattice-style bridge, no more than twenty to thirty minutes had elapsed. Thirty-seven people were to die, including five of the train crew; fifty were injured and twenty-eight escaped with minor injuries or were otherwise physically unharmed.

Two buildings stood at the ends of the bridge: the Pingree house at the southern end and the Paine farm at the northern end and on the right (east) side of the track. Both immediately became hospitals, refuges, recovery rooms, and morgues. The crushing and maiming of crew and passengers, adults and children, was horrible in itself; but the outside temperature, approaching −20° F, presented the additional threat of frostbite and hypothermia and dictated that rescue efforts be made as quickly as possible. Those able to exit their sleeping berths were likely to be very thinly clad, some with nothing on but night clothes. The injured and dying were stretched out on floors in all and any rooms, “kitchen, sitting room and parlor, bedroom and two large upper rooms to the number of fifty or more.”

"The response from White River Junction, a relief train with physicians, wrecking tools, and volunteers, was soon underway. Some of the people in the Paine house who were not injured or slightly so boarded the train and continued their trips to Montpelier, St. Albans, and Montreal. Engineer Pierce pulled away with the baggage and mail sections at 8:30 that same morning. He estimated that five or six passengers were on board, but D. Roy counted “about a dozen” names on the conductor’s list, including Jacques, Beauregard, and Lacaillade.  

Euclide Chagnon of Manchester, New Hampshire, was quick to escape the turmoil, so quick that he was listed among the missing and unidentifiable dead, and a friend from Manchester was dispatched to collect his remains. A telegraph from Montreal later confirmed that he arrived there Sunday evening in good health. The same occurred to Charles C. Domett of New York (or Boston). Barely escaping with his life from the sleeper “St. Albans,” he claimed he “went over to St. Albans” and refitted himself with clothing. He, too, had been listed among the dead, not because of a body count but because he wasn’t around to be otherwise accounted for. Upon his return to the White River Junction hotel, he collected his watch and money that had been picked up and was eager to continue on to Montreal. 

The same can be said of Dr. C. F. Clark, who telegraphed his family that he was safely in Montreal. These three were representative of others who, uninjured, thought their best plan of action was to avail themselves of an offered route out of the valley on the northbound mail train and put behind them as quickly as possible the traumatizing aspects of the situation.  

Sunday, the day following the tragedy, saw throngs of onlookers swarm to the scene, some searching for relatives or friends, others to aid in the grisly job of picking over remains, and others souvenir hunting or just gawking at the burned-out residue of what had been four proud coaches of the popular Central Vermont."
- vermonthistory.orq


Since this event, the imagination of many have been stirred. At the sight of the railroad bridge where over 30 people died, the original wooden structure was almost immediately replaced by a stronger steel bridge, however the original concrete footings still stand.  

There are 2 accounts of a 13 year old boy, by the name of Joe McCabe.  In one story, people state that he watched his father die in the fire of the wreck.  Anotehr version states that both the father and young Joe perished at this site.  Many people have told the tale of seeing a young 19th Century lad floating above, playing in or wandering around the river. 

An estimated 37 people in total lost their lives during this tragedy, some dying in flames, others trapped inside the cars, and still others were taken away by the icey cold river.  

Surely a disaster of this magnitude would leave the remnants of such tortured souls.  To this day, visitors to the Town of Hartford statte that they detect an odor of burning wood, yet there is nothing to which to match the smell.   

Photos / Image Credits: 
raunerlibrary.blogspot.com - Dartmouth College Library
Pinterest - pullman car; fineartamerica;
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