On the evening of August 26, 1871, the Eastern Railroad’s Portland Express slammed into the rear of a stopped local train in Revere, Massachusetts. It is reported that the night was very dark and the engineer of the express thought the lights on the rear car of the stopped local train were from the station’s lamps.
The express managed to slow to 10 miles per hour, but at that point the collision had become unavoidable. The express train’s steam boiler exploded and about a dozen people were either crushed to death by the boiler or scalded by the escaping steam and hot water. Some trapped passengers were burned alive as coal-oil lamps ignited the wreckage. Approximately 29 people died, while several others were injured.
Excerpts from the Report of the Essex Institute
“The travel on the Eastern Railroad was somewhat of an exceptional nature, varying in more than ordinary degree with the different seasons of the year. During the winter months of 1871 the corporation had to provide for a regular passenger movement of about 75,000 a week, but in the summer the excursion and pleasure travel increased this number to over 110,000.
“During the week ending Saturday, August 26, 1871, the rolling stock and energies of the employees had been most severely taxed. The usual tide of summer travel, then at its full flood, was largely increased by two camp meetings, one at Asbury Grove in Hamilton and the other at Kennebunk, Maine, and besides this a regular encampment of a brigade of the Massachusetts State militia was being held at Swampscott. The number of passengers had increased from about 110,000, the full summer average, to over 140,000, while the sixty-six trains a day on the main line provided for in the time table were largely increased by numerous extras which it was found necessary to run.
“It had never been the custom with those managing the Eastern Railroad to place any reliance upon the telegraph in directing the train movement, and no use whatever appears to have been made of it towards straightening out the numerous hitches inevitable from so sudden an increase in that movement. If an engine broke down or a train became delayed, throughout that week, nothing had been done, except to patiently wait until things got into motion again. Each conductor or station agent had to look out for himself, under the running regulations of the road, and need expect no assistance from headquarters. This, too, in spite of the fact that, including the Saugus branch, out of 216 miles of road operated by the company, only 18 miles was double tracked. The whole train movement, both of the main road and branches, intricate in the extreme as it was, thus depended solely upon a schedule arrangement and the watchful intelligence of individual employees.
“Not unnaturally, therefore, as the week drew to a close, confusion and pandemonium reigned supreme, and the trains reached and left the Boston station with an almost total disregard of the schedule, while towards the evening of Saturday the employees at that station directed their efforts almost exclusively to dispatching trains as fast as cars could be procured, thus trying to keep it as clear as possible of the great throng of impatient travelers.
“According to the regular schedule, four trains should leave the Boston station in succession during the hour and a half between 6:30 and 8:00 P. M. — a Saugus branch train for Lynn at 6:30, a second Saugus branch train at 7:00, the Beverly accommodation at 7:15, and finally the express for Bangor at 8 o’clock. In front of the little station at Revere (formerly called North Chelsea), six miles from Boston, the express overtook and ran into the rear of the accommodation.
“A horrible disaster ensued. Both of the Saugus branch trains should have preceded the Beverly accommodation, but in the prevailing confusion the first of the two branch trains did not leave the station until about 7 o’clock, or thirty minutes behind time, and forty minutes later was followed, not by the second Saugus branch train, but by the Beverly train, which was twenty-five or more minutes late.
“Thirteen minutes afterward the second Saugus branch train, which should have preceded (but was held for want of a crew), followed, it being nearly an hour behind time. Then at last came the Bangor express, which got away a few minutes after 8 o’clock. All these four trains went out over the same track as far as Everett Junction, but at this point the first and third of the four were to go off on the branch track, while the second and fourth kept on over the main line. The first of the Saugus branch trains on arriving at the Junction should have met and passed an inward branch train, which was timed to leave Lynn at 6 o’clock, but its conductor had been instructed to wait for the arrival of an extra from the Asbury Grove Camp Meeting. This train, however, was very late, one of its cars having broken a draw bar as they were starting, so that it did not leave Lynn until 7: 30 P. M., or one hour and a half late.
“Accordingly when the outward train from Boston reached the Junction its conductor found himself confronted by the rule forbidding him to enter the Saugus branch until the train due from Lynn should have passed. There was then no siding upon which an outward branch train could wait temporarily and leave the main line clear. There had been difficulties arising from this cause before, but nothing very serious, as the employee in charge of the signals at Everett Junction had been in the habit of moving any delayed train temporarily out of the way onto the branch or the other main track, under protection of a flag, thereby relieving a block. On the day of the accident this employee (John J. Robinson) happened to be ill and absent from his post. His substitute either had no sense or did not feel called upon to use it.
“So the first Saugus branch train quietly waited on the outward track of the main line, blocking it completely to traffic. This train had not waited long before an extra locomotive, ” Rockport,” No 30, on its way from Boston to Salem, came up and stopped behind it. This was presently followed by the Beverly accommodation, then the next Saugus branch train came along.
“Here was a road utterly unable to provide its passengers with cars, while a succession of trains were standing idle for an hour because a train was delayed twelve miles away. A simple telegraph message to the branch trains to meet and pass at any other point than that fixed in the schedule would have solved the whole difficulty. There were two telegraph operators in the Boston station and a telegraph office at Lynn (though not in the station), but it does not seem to have occurred to anyone, from Superintendent Prescott down, to make use of the wires to find out the cause of the delay.
“At last, at about ten minutes after eight o’clock, the long expected Lynn train made its appearance, and the first of the Saugus branch trains immediately went off the main line. The road was now clear for the Beverly accommodation, which had been standing some fifteen minutes in the block, and which from this time on would be running on the schedule time of the Bangor express.
“As the Bangor express was about to leave the Boston station, Superintendent Prescott directed the depot master to caution the engineer “to look out for the Beverly train.” This mere verbal order, delivered after the train had started, Mr. Lunt walking along by the side of the slowly moving locomotive, was not fully understood or even heard by the engineer, Ashael Brown, as he supposed it to refer to the Saugus branch train. When he saw that train go off the main line and down the branch, he naturally supposed the track was clear, and when the express train left Everett it was fairly chasing the accommodation train and overtaking it with terrible rapidity.
“Even then no collision ought to have been possible. Unfortunately, however, the Eastern Railroad had no system, even the crudest, of interval signals, and although the station agent at Chelsea might have prevented the accident by stopping the express with a red lantern, he concluded those in charge of the two trains knew what they were about, so he did nothing.
“The station at Revere stood on the other side of the track and a short distance further east than it does at present, being at the end of a tangent, the track curving directly before it. The Beverly train was standing at the station, but unfortunately engineer Brown did not at once see its tail lights, which were ordinary white lanterns without any reflecting power whatever. His attention was wholly absorbed in looking for the masthead lantern signals of the East Boston branch, which here joined the main line.
“When at last he brought his eyes down to the level, to use his own words at the subsequent inquest, “the local’s tail lights seemed to spring right up in my face.” It was probably about eight hundred feet distant at the time. Mr. Brown immediately whistled for brakes, reversed his engine, and he and the fireman, William F. Simonds, jumped for their lives and were unhurt. The express, Alfred N. Goodhue, conductor, was made up of a baggage car, Pullman car, smoking car, and passenger coach. Benjamin F. Keyes, so long the conductor on the Swampscott and Saugus branches, was the baggage master, and says that in response to engineer Brown’s whistle he immediately sprang for the brake on the baggage car, but had hardly reached it before the crash came.
“At the time of the collision the local, made up of two passenger cars, a smoker and a baggage car, in response to conductor Nowland’s ordinary signal, had just started, the locomotive’s wheels having made one revolution. The rear car was packed with some seventy- five passengers, seated and standing, of all sexes and ages. The first intimation they had of anything wrong was the sudden and lurid illumination of the car by the glare from the headlight of the approaching “Newburyport”. The engine crashed two-thirds of the way through the rear car, crushing human beings, furniture and fixtures into an indistinguishable mass. To add to the horror, the oil from the broken lamps became ignited and several of the injured passengers were roasted and scalded to death from fire and the escaping steam of the colliding locomotive whose boiler rested inside the car.
“It was found necessary to tear out one whole side of the car to rescue the survivors inside. Neither was the fire confined to the last car of the Beverly train. In the block at Everett, locomotive “Rockport”, No. 30, returning to Salem, had found itself stopped just in advance of the local. At the suggestion of Mr. Nowland, it had been coupled to the regular locomotive, “Ironsides “, No. 15, consequently becoming a part of the train. When the collision took place, therefore, the four cars were crushed between the weight of the colliding train on one end and that of two locomotives on the other. Consequently, the remaining cars were jammed and shattered, and though the passengers in them escaped, the broken lamps ignited, and the cars were entirely consumed.
“In this terrible catastrophe, one of the worst ever seen in New England, thirty persons lost their lives and about sixty were injured, some of them being crippled for life. With one exception, all those seriously hurt were in the rear car. As soon as possible an extra train was made up in Boston, which brought the most seriously injured to the hospitals, but it was a long time before knowledge of the disaster was received at Boston, there being no telegraph office between Boston and Lynn, and some one had to drive in with a fast horse from Revere (over six miles), bringing the sad news.
“A deep feeling of horror and indignation over this entirely unnecessary accident made itself felt all over New England. It is said that over 40,000 copies of the Boston Sunday Herald were sold on the next day after the disaster. Public meetings of protest were held all over Massachusetts, and at one in Swampscott, Wendell Phillips, the great champion of anti-slavery, said . . . “it is a deliberate murder . . . there is no accident in the case . . . only the greed of the Eastern Railroad Company.” Two coroners’ inquests, one held at Revere and the other at Lynn, also excoriated the company. The accident was also thoroughly investigated by the Massachusetts Railroad Commissioners and a committee of the directors of the Eastern Railroad, and they both held conductor Nowland to blame, he not having sent his brakeman to the rear, as the rules demanded, to flag the express, upon whose time he was running. He was accordingly suspended, although remaining in the company’s service for some time.
“The Revere disaster cost the Eastern Railroad in damages, $510,600.00, according to their own figures. It may with perfect truth be said that this accident marked an epoch in the history of railroad development, for in quick succession the various companies adopted many safety appliances that had hitherto been little thought of.”