The year 2013 was not a great one for the Metro-North Commuter Railroad, with a collision, a major power outage, and, most recently a fatal derailment making the six o’clock news around the country. What this series of mishaps actually points out, however, is that when one considers the number of freight, passenger and commuter trains running in this country, rail travel is still a pretty safe way to get around. This was not the case a century or more ago, when railroad accidents and disasters were frequent and deadly. Mechanical failures, communication problems, and poorly trained crews all figured in these to varying degrees.
January 15, 1878 started out as a normal day of operations for the Connecticut Western Railroad, a 69-mile route linking Hartford and the Hudson Valley. Traveling through some of the most scenic terrain in Connecticut, the route nevertheless had proved a financial disappointment to its investors. One way of increasing revenues was for railroads to provide trains for special events.
Well-known evangelist Dwight L. Moody traveled throughout America bringing his religious message to the masses. Teamed with noted gospel singer Ira D. Sankey, Moody had preached to thousands of people since arriving in Hartford the week before. The CWRR arranged for a special 10-car train pulled by two locomotives to carry people along its line to Hartford for one of Moody’s revival meetings. When the return train left Hartford shortly after 9:00 PM that evening it carried scores of enthusiastic riders bound for towns as close as Bloomfield and as distant as Canaan.
Shortly after 10 PM the train crossed the wooden bridge spanning the Farmington River at Tariffville. Suddenly, with what was described as a sickening groan, one of the two main spans collapsed, dropping one of the two locomotives and several coaches into the icy river. Wooden coaches splintered, killing some passengers, while others succumbed to the freezing water. Relief trains carrying physicians and rescue personnel were sent to the scene, and as word spread, photographers flocked to record the disaster. The final toll was thirteen dead and more than seventy injured, some severely.
As with transportation accidents today an investigation was conducted, with witnesses and experts testifying; despite the amount of evidence the panel could not determine the exact cause for the collapse. However, bridge construction and maintenance standards were tightened and, significantly, the following year the CWRR replaced the only other bridge of this type on its line. A new, more modern bridge was also constructed at Tariffville and service resumed. The line was ultimately acquired by the New Haven Railroad and finally abandoned in the 1930s. With a keen eye you can still follow the old roadbed to the bridge site on the banks of the Farmington River in Simsbury.
The Connecticut Historical Society has a large collection of images, manuscripts and artifacts that trace the state’s railroad history and 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 chs.org. Selected photographs may be viewed in Connecticut History Online at cthistoryonline.org.