Horror on the Housatonic

Aug 9, 2013

Railroad mishaps have been in the news in 2013, from the Metro-North derailment and collision in May to the runaway oil train explosion in Canada and the Spanish high speed train crash, both in July. While a broken rail is suspected in the Metro-North incident, human failure seems to be involved in the other two disasters.

Railroads rode the cutting edge of transportation technology in the nineteenth century and, as with any new development, certain limitations soon became apparent. Although railroads themselves became a crucial form of communication as well as commerce, they depended a great deal on communications themselves. This was particularly true when it came to the safe operation of trains over extended distances. While railroads used the telegraph to communicate between stations, there was no way to contact individual trains. Railroads depended on written instructions called “train orders” to ensure safe operations. These train orders spelled out what a particular train was allowed to do between certain points. On single-track lines with trains operating in both directions, it was crucial that trains meet each other at places where a passing track was provided--usually at stations along the line. A train order might specify that such a “meet” would be required before either train could proceed.

On August 14, 1865 the Housatonic Railroad was operating both freight and passenger trains on the southern end of their line connecting Bridgeport with Pittsfield, Massachusetts. A passenger train consisting of a locomotive and two coaches left Bridgeport that morning traveling north. Near Trumbull it encountered a north-bound freight train whose locomotive had become disabled. The freight train’s crew had correctly set out marker flags a safe distance down the track to warm approaching trains of the breakdown. With the line blocked, the passenger train crew decided to tow the disabled freight train back to Bridgeport, after which they would resume their trip north with their train.

As the train was slowly backing its way toward Bridgeport, around a curve came a fast moving locomotive “running light”, that is, without a train in tow.  The railroad was conducting road tests on a new locomotive before it entered service. That locomotive’s crew was unable to stop, and plowed into the rear passenger coach of the other train with terrific force. The impact almost split the car in half lengthwise. The ensuing rupture of the boiler sent jets of high pressure steam into the shattered coach, scalding passengers who survived the actual impact.

At least eight people died as a result of the wreck, with nearly a score suffering painful injuries. While many of the dead were from the Bridgeport area, ironically, among the fatalities was Corporal George Mansfield, a thrice-wounded veteran of the 2nd Connecticut Volunteer Heavy Artillery, who had been medically discharged only five days earlier and was returning home to Canaan after three years service in the Civil War.

The Connecticut Historical Society has a large collection of railroad photographs and ephemera which may be viewed by visiting the Waterman Research Center at One Elizabeth Street, Hartford, Connecticut. The Research Center is open Thursday from 12-5 and Friday and Saturday from 9-5. For more information, go to www.chs.org. Selected photographs may be viewed in Connecticut History Online at www.cthistoryonline.org.