19 April 1873
there was no escape for those trapped in the wreckage and survivors recalled with horror the screams of the final moments of those left behind
...and then one night 'twas heard no more
the wreck of the boat train
Today's Amtrak passenger trains running on the Northeast corridor between Boston and New York whiz along in part over what could rightfully be called American railroading's primeval inter city route, the late New Haven Railroad's Shore Line Route. Built under a succession of separate charters and later amalgamated into a single line, this pioneer road of steel still sees heavy, high speed inter city service.
The section of the Shore Line from Stonington, Connecticut to Providence, Rhode Island, completed in 1837 under the auspices of the New York, Providence and Boston Railroad, better known as the Stonington Line is still in use today. It was originally laid as a single track and was later converted to double track to accommodate increasing traffic. The last section to be double tracked was the stretch of line between Carolina and Wood River Junction, R.I. a job completed in 1875.
Wood River Junction was originally called Richmond Switch and featured a passing track, a station, a water tank and a siding for the local farming community. Just east of the village the tracks of the Stonington Line crossed Meadow Brook, on a bridge with a span of less than 20 feet. Today an Amtrak train crossing that bridge takes about three seconds. Yet on Saturday, April 19, 1873 that short bridge was the scene of the most tragic episodes in the history of the Stonington Line and one of the most horrific wrecks in the annuls of railroading.
At about 2:45 that morning the "Steam Boat Train" pulled away from the Stonington steamboat landing, having made a delayed connection with the overnight steamboat from New York City. The "Boat Train" was bound for Providence with three flat cars piled high with freight and baggage and over 100 passengers packed into its five coaches. A great many of the 100 were packed like sardines in the first passenger car, a second class coach commonly called an emigrant car. Most of them were just that, emigrants with their pitiful few belongings freshly arrived in the United States to begin a new life. They had been sold cheap through tickets to the west and were treated like so much bulk freight.
At Stonington Junction the "Boat Train" met the northbound "Shore Line Express," with the Boston mail. Conductor Orrin Gardner of the Boat Train was already in a foul mood. Because the boat from New York had been a half hour late he had not cleared the junction with the allotted time interval before the scheduled arrival of the Shore Line Express, and so he had to cool his heels on a siding until it arrived, in the mean time his train was getting later and later.
Finally, at 3:05 the Shore Line Express arrived and its conductor, Thomas Sprague, swung down to the platform. Since the railroad's rulebook did not specifically cover their situation the two conductors immediately entered into a shouting match to decide whose train should go first. Sprague declared that the Boston mail gave him priority while Gardiner claimed that since his train was already late it shouldn't be made any later. Either Gardiner screamed louder or talked faster, or perhaps the engineer of the Shore Line reminded Sprague that they still needed to take on water, but it was decided that the Boat Train would proceed first and the Shore Line would follow it at the prescribed interval of ten minutes. A brakeman lined the junction turnout for the sidetrack. Gardiner looked at his watch, waved a highball and then climbed aboard the smoker at the rear of the train. It was 3:13 a.m. Up at the head end engineer William D. Guile eased open the throttle of his stylish eight wheeler, the N. F. Dixon, and the wheels of fate began to turn inexorably toward disaster.
In a few minutes the Boat Train crossed the Pawcatuck River and entered Rhode Island at Westerly. After a brief station stop there engineer Guile opened up the throttle and began to make up a little time racing through the dark and misty morning at about forty miles an hour. Just about nine miles north of Westerly the Boat Train thundered downgrade into Richmond Switch.
At Richmond Switch, just west of the railroad track, Meadow Brook was dammed to provide water power for G. N. Ennis' gristmill. The dam was made of dry laid stone slabs backed by an earthen fill over 20 feet thick with the Alton Road running on top of the fill. This dam held back about 40 acres of water.
It had rained hard on Thursday and Friday, very hard. The ground was soaked to the point that is seemed the earth could hold no more water, and the rain just lay on top of the ground several inches deep in places waiting for a chance to run off. The water level in the millpond rose quickly in spite of the miller's opening the mill gates to vent excess buildup. At about the time that Gardiner and Sprague were having their argument an old farmer on his way home crossed the dam. He had seen the water in the pond higher, he later said, and saw nothing particularly out of the ordinary. Perhaps it was a little trickle near the mill's sluice, or maybe the fill had soaked up so much water that it began to slide, but the dam gave way.
A solid wall of water ten feet high raced down the normally shallow channel. The water snatched the road bridge and dashed it against the railroad bridge 100 yards downstream, while the torrent undermined the abutments of the railroad bridge. The railroad bridge may have resisted the freshet at first, but then stone by stone the abutments crumbled until the bridge was held up only by the steel rails across it. Then the Boat Train arrived.
Conductor Gardiner who habitually rode in the first coach, had on this particular night chosen to partake of a cigar with some other railroaders deadheading back to Providence, and was in the smoking car at the rear of the train, a choice which probably saved his life. As he enjoyed his cigar Gardiner kept his mind on business. Remembering that the Shore Line Express did not stop in Westerly he got out some fusees and a lantern which he intended to hang from the rear platform of his train as a signal to the following express to keep its distance.
One moment the train was high stepping along the Pawcatuck River Valley and the next instant the headlight swung crazily, pointing high in the night sky as the locomotive leapt the chasm, now 40 feet wide and crashed into the bank on the other side, its pilot truck buried seven feet into the bank on the other side and a rail from the broken bridge driven entirely through the boiler from end to end. The coal tender jackknifed, coming to rest upside down on top of the cab. The three flat cars piled into the stream and then the first three coaches slammed together with a horrible splintering, each telescoping halfway through the one ahead of it. The last coach and the smoker, at least were spared telescoping by virtue of their Miller Platforms. The first coach, the one packed with emigrants, was driven out atop the sunken flatcars by the force of the telescoping coaches behind it, spilling some of its contents of humanity into the frigid swirling dark water. They were the lucky ones.
Inside the splintering coaches the glowing coal stoves and oil lamps, which moments before had been a source of comfort and light, overturned, showering the occupants and wreckage with a lethal combination of red hot coals and flammable liquid. Fires broke out simultaneously in several places, and fanned by a brisk northeast breeze began to spread. As the survivors extricated themselves from the wreckage and pulled the injured after them the fire took hold.
Conductor Gardiner was hurled to the floor and slid part way under a seat. At once he took the lantern and calmly lit it from the cigar he still had clenched in his teeth. He grabbed the pants leg of deadhead brakeman Walter Monroe and ordered his in a calm clear voice, "Take the red light. Carry it to the rear as quick as possible and stop the other train," almost as though being in a train wreck were an everyday occurrence to him.
Up front the fire was spreading rapidly and there was no fire fighting equipment available. One Providence man, ironically a fire extinguisher salesman could not be saved and as the flames drove back rescuers for the last time he looked after the piteously with an expression which could never be forgotten. Another man was stuck halfway out a window of a burning car. "Help me," he cried, "I am burned to death!" Conductor Gardiner tried to free the man with an axe, but the flames drove Gardiner back. Only death could end that man's suffering. A third man was trapped under some debris pinned down by an overturned coal stove. Although badly burned, he was saved when other passengers pryed up the stove using a piece of wreckage for a lever.
Brakeman Monroe was also in a race with death stumbling over the ties as he ran back around a curve. Ahead of him he could see the headlight of the fast approaching Express. Frantically he waved the feebly glowing lantern and then there was a small miracle, he heard the engineer's whistle call for brakes, and then squeal of steel on steel as the locomotive was thrown into reverse. The sight of the breathless brakeman was enough for Conductor Sprague, he realized at once the magnitude of the catastrophe up ahead. Climbing up on the engine's pilot he ordered the Express's cars dropped and then ordered the engine to pull up to the wreck, where he coupled onto the rear cars and pulled them out of the fire which was already blistering their varnish.
There was no escape for those trapped in the wreckage and survivors recalled with horror the screams of the final moments of those left behind. The cars burned until there was nothing left but ashes and glowing metal parts. Other passengers, weighed down by their heavy clothing foundered in the raging stream some unable to reach firm ground. One rescuer made his way across the stream which normally ran no more than a foot deep, but now was swollen to a depth of about eight feet, to reach the locomotive. He found engineer Guile dead his body jammed between a driving wheel and the boiler, his lifeless hand still outstretched toward the throttle. When the fire finally flickered out, the engineer's featureless body was identified only by his pocket watch in the ashes of his cab. The fireman, George Eldred, was reported by the newspapers as being found the next morning, "burned to a crisp," but still clutch the tender's brakewheel in his fire blackened hands.
Word of the wreck spread fast, and soon relief trains were dispatched from Stonington and Providence with doctors and volunteers, but they arrived too late to do much except ease the suffering on another train bound for The Rhode Island Hospital in Providence. Twenty Two of the passengers were taken in and all but one recovered. That man lived for several years before succumbing to what his doctor described as "railway concussion."
A special train took the body of fireman Eldred to his home in Wickford, a few miles north of the wreck site. The rest of the dead were conveyed to the Swarts Funeral home at the corner of Pine and Dorrance Streets in Providence. There the grim task of identifying the dead was undertaken. Three of the bodies were burned beyond any recognition as human. One of those was identified as a woman only by the remains of a skirt hoop found around the remains.
Crowds gathered outside the funeral home, at the railroad station in Providence and at the wreck site where at dawn the railroad began work to right the locomotive and clear away the wreckage. Through service was restored in three days.
The train had 91 ticketed passengers, a nine man crew and six deadheading railroaders aboard on that fatal morning. The engineer, fireman and nine passengers were killed in the wreck. Some passengers were never accounted for and it has been claimed by some historians that the death toll may have been higher. For weeks afterwards pieces of clothing, debris from the wreck and occasionally a gruesome part of a body were picked out of mill wheels as far downstream as Westerly.
Engineer Guile had live with his new wife in a house within walking distance of the railroad tracks in Providence near the present day site of Roger Williams Park. In those days engineers would usually be assigned to a particular locomotive, often decorating it to their own tastes. One of the most common decorations was the whistle. With practice, a sliding valve and a few carefully shaped wooden blocks an engineer could often make the whistle "talk."
In those days of "Polly-put-the-kettle-on" whistling, engineer Guile was not one to be outdone. As he passed his home each night Guile would salute his wife with two short blasts, which with the application of a little imagination became "I-luuuv yOOOOuuu." On that April morning his whistle wasn't heard and the neighbors thought he'd forgotten to sound his customary greeting. They never dreamed what his bride already guessed, her love lay dead in the twisted wreckage.
This file last updated: Sunday, 27-Feb-2000 14:10:03 EST