AUGUST 26, 1871. 125



THE terrible disaster which occurred in front of the little station-building at Revere, six miles from Boston on the Eastern railroad of Massachusetts, in August 1871, was, properly speaking, not an accident at all; it was essentially a catastrophe—the legitimate and almost inevitable final outcome of an antiquated and insufficient system. As such it should long remain a subject for prayerful meditation to all those who may at any time be entrusted with the immediate operating of railroads. It was terribly dramatic, but it was also frightfully instructive; and while the lesson was by no means lost, it yet admits of further and advantageous study. For, like most other men whose lives are devoted to a special calling, the managers of railroads are apt to be very much wedded to their own methods, and attention has already more than once been called to the fact that, when any new emergency necessitates a new 


appliance, they not infrequently, as Captain Tyler well put it in his report to the Board of Trade for the year 1870, "display more ingenuity in finding objections than in overcoming them."

The Eastern railroad of Massachusetts connects Boston with Portland, in the state of Maine, by a line which is located close along the sea-shore. Between Boston and Lynn, a distance of eleven miles, the main road is in large part built across the salt marshes, but there is a branch which leaves it at Everett, a small station some miles out of Boston, and thence, running deviously through a succession of towns on the higher ground, connects with the main track again at Lynn; thus making what is known in England as a loop-road. At the time of the Revere accident this Lynn branch was equipped with but a single track, and was operated wholly by schedule without any reliance on the telegraph; and, indeed, there were not even telegraphic offices at a number of the stations upon it. Revere, the name of the station where the accident took place, was on the main line about five miles from Boston and two miles from Everett, where the


Saugus branch, as the loop-road was called, began. The accompanying diagram shows the relative position of the several points and of the main and branch lines, a thorough appreciation of which is essential to a correct understanding of the disaster.

The travel over the Eastern railroad is of a some what exceptional nature, varying in a more than ordinary degree with the different seasons of the year. During the winter months the corporation had, in 1871, to provide for a regular passenger movement of about seventy-five thousand a week, but in the summer what is known as the excursion and pleasure travel not infrequently increased the number to one hundred and ten thousand, and even more. As a natural consequence, during certain weeks of each summer, and more especially towards the close of August, it was no unusual thing for the corporation to find itself taxed beyond its utmost resources. It is emergencies of this description, periodically occurring on every railroad, which always subject to the final test the organization and discipline of companies and the capacity of superintendents. A railroad in quiet times is like a ship in steady weather; almost anybody can manage the one or sail the other. It is the sudden stress which reveals the undeveloped strength or the hidden weakness; and the truly instructive feature in the Revere accident lay in the amount of hidden weakness everywhere which was brought to light under that sudden stress. During the week ending with


that Saturday evening upon which the disaster occurred the rolling stock of the road had been heavily taxed, not only to accommodate the usual tide of summer travel, then at its full flood, but also those attending a military muster and two large camp meetings upon its line. The number of passengers going over it had accordingly risen from about one hundred and ten thousand, the full summer average, to over one hundred and forty thousand; while instead of the one hundred and fifty-two trains a day provided for in the running schedule, there were no less than one hundred and ninety-two. It had never been the custom with those managing the road 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 got off the track, there had accordingly throughout that week been nothing done, except patient and general waiting, until things got in motion again; each conductor or station-master 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, no less than ninety-three of the entire one hundred and fifteen miles of road operated by the company were supplied only with a single track. The whole train movement, both of the main line and of the branches,


intricate in the extreme as it was, thus depended solely on a schedule arrangement and the watchful intelligence of individual employees. Not unnaturally, therefore, as the week drew to a close the confusion became so great that the trains reached and left the Boston station with an almost total disregard of the schedule; while towards the evening of Saturday the employees of the road 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 throng of impatient travellers which continually blocked it up. Taken altogether the situation illustrated in a very striking manner that singular reliance of the corporation on the individuality and intelligence of its employees, which in another connection is referred to as one of the most striking characteristics of American railroad management, without a full appreciation of which it is impossible to understand its using or failing to use certain appliances.

According to the regular schedule four trains should have left the Boston station in succession during the hour and a half between 6:30 and eight o'clock PM: a Saugus branch train for Lynn at 6.30; a second Saugus branch train at seven; an accommodation train, which ran eighteen miles over the main line, at 7:15; and finally the express train through to Portland, also over the main line, at eight o'clock. The collision at Revere was between these last two trains, the express overtaking and running 


into the rear or the accommodation train; but it was indirectly caused by the delays and irregularity in movement of the two branch trains. It will be noticed that, according to the schedule, both of the branch trains should have preceded the accommodation train; in the prevailing confusion, however, the first of the two branch trains did not leave the station until about seven o'clock, thirty minutes behind its time, and it was followed forty minutes later, not by the second branch train, but by the accommodation train, which in its turn was twenty-five minutes late. Thirteen minutes afterwards the second Saugus branch train, which should have preceded, followed it, being nearly an hour out of time. Then at last came the Portland express, which got away practically on time, at a few minutes after eight o'clock. All of these four trains went out over the same track as far as the junction at Everett, but at that point the first and third of the four were to go off on the branch, while the second and fourth kept on over the main line. Between these last two trains the running schedule of the road allowed an ample time-interval of forty-five minutes, which, however, on this occasion was reduced, through the delay in starting, to some fifteen or twenty minutes. No causes of further delay, therefore, arising, the simple case was presented of a slow accommodation train being sent out to run eighteen miles in advance of a fast express train, with an interval of twenty minutes between them.


Unfortunately, however, the accommodation train was speedily subjected to another and very serious delay. It has been mentioned that the Saugus branch was a single track road, and the rules of the company were explicit that no outward train was to pass onto the branch at Everett until any inward train then due there should have arrived and passed off it. There was no siding at the junction, upon which an outward branch train could be temporarily placed to wait for the inward train, thus leaving the main track clear, and accordingly, under a strict construction of the rules, any outward branch train while awaiting the arrival at Everett of an inward branch train was to be kept standing on the main track, completely blocking it. The outward branch trains, it subsequently appeared, were often delayed at the junction, but no practical difficulty had arisen from this cause, as the employee in charge of the signals and switches there, exercising his common sense, had been in the custom of moving any delayed train temporarily out of the way onto the branch or the other main track, under protection of a flag, and thus relieving the block. The need of a siding to permit the passage of trains at this point had not been felt, simply because the employee in charge there had used the branch or other main track as a siding. On the day of the accident this employee happened to be sick, and absent from his post. His substitute either had no common sense or did not feel called upon to use it, if its use


involved any increase of responsibility. Accordingly, when a block took place, the simple letter of the rule was followed; and it is almost needless to add that a block did take place on the afternoon of August 26th.

The first of the branch trains, it will be remembered, had left Boston at about seven o'clock, instead of at 6:30:, its schedule time. On arriving at Everett this train should have met and passed an inward branch train, which was timed to leave Lynn at six o'clock, but which, owing to some accident to its locomotive, and partaking of the general confusion of the day, on this particular afternoon did not leave the Lynn station until 7:30 o'clock, or one hour and a half after its schedule time, and one half-hour after the other train had left Boston. Accordingly, when the Boston train reached the junction its conductor found himself confronted by the rule forbidding him to enter upon the branch until the Lynn train then due should have passed off it, and so he quietly waited on the outward track of the main line, blocking it completely to traffic. He had not waited long before a special locomotive, on its way from Boston to Salem, came up and stopped behind him. This was presently followed by the accommodation train. Then the next branch train came along, and finally the Portland express. At such a time, and at that period of railroad development, there was something ludicrous about the spectacle. Here was a road utterly unable to accommodate


its passengers with cars, while, a succession of trains were standing idle for hours, because a locomotive had broken down ten miles off. The telegraph was there, but the company was not in the custom of putting any reliance upon it. A simple message to the branch trains to meet and pass at any point other than that fixed in the schedule would have solved the whole difficulty; but, no!—there were the rules, and all the rolling stock of the road might gather at Everett in solemn procession, but, until the locomotive at Lynn could be repaired, the law of the Medes and Persians was plain; and in this case it read that the telegraph was a new-fangled and unreliable auxiliary. And so the lengthening procession stood there long enough for the train which caused it to have gone to its destination and come back dragging the disabled locomotive from Lynn behind it to again take its place in the block.

At last, at about ten minutes after eight o'clock, the long expected Lynn train made its appearance, and the first of the branch trains from Boston immediately went off the main line. The road was now clear for the accommodation train, which had been standing some twelve or fifteen minutes in the block, but which from the moment of again starting was running on the schedule time of the Portland express. This, its conductor did not know. Every minute was vital, and yet he never thought to look at his watch. He had a vague impression that he


had been delayed some six or eight minutes, when in reality he had been delayed fifteen; and, though he was running wholly out of his schedule time, he took not a single precaution, so persuaded was he that every one knew where he was.

The confusion among those in charge of the various engines and trains was, indeed, general and complete. As the Portland express was about to leave the Boston station, the superintendent of the road, knowing by the non-arrival of the branch train from Lynn that there must be a block at the Everett junction, had directed the depot-master to caution the engineer to look out for the trains ahead of him. The order, a merely verbal one, was delivered after the train had started, the depot-master walking along by the side of the slowly-moving locomotive, and was either incorrectly transmitted or not fully understood; the engine-driver supposed it to apply to the branch train which had started just before him, out of both its schedule time and schedule place. Presently, at the junction, he was stopped by the signal man of this train. The course of reasoning he would then have had to pass through to divine the true situation of affairs and to guide himself safely under the schedule in the light of the running rules was complicated indeed, and somewhat as follows: "The branch train," he should have argued to himself, "is stopped, and it is stopped because the train which should have left Lynn at six o'clock has not yet arrived; but, under the


rules, that train should pass off the branch before the 6:30 train could pass onto it; if, therefore, the 'wild' train before me is delayed not only the 6:30 but all intermediate trains must likewise be delayed, and the accommodation train went out this afternoon after the 6:30 train, so it, too, must be in the block ahead of me; unless, indeed, as is usually the case, the signal-master has got it out of the block under the protection of a flag." This line of reasoning was, perhaps, too intricate; at any rate, the engine-driver did not follow it out, but, when he saw the tail-lights immediately before him disappear on the branch, he concluded that the main line was now clear, and dismissed the depot-master's caution from his mind. Meanwhile, as the engine-driver of this train was fully persuaded that the only other train in his front had gone off on the branch, the conductor of the accommodation train was equally persuaded that the head-light immediately behind him in the block at the junction had been that of the Portland express which consequently should be aware of his position. Both were wrong.

Thus when they left Everett the express was fairly chasing the accommodation train, and overtaking it with terrible rapidity. Even then no collision ought to have been possible. Unfortunately, however, the road had no system, even the crudest, of interval signals; and the utter irregularity prevailing in the train movement seemed to have demoralized the employees along the line, who, though they noticed 


the extreme proximity of the two trains to each other as they passed various points, all sluggishly took it for granted that those in charge of them were fully aware of their relative positions and knew what they were about. Thus, as the two trains approached the Revere station, they were so close together as to be on the same piece of straight track at the same time, and a passenger standing at the rear end of the accommodation train distinctly saw the head-light of the express locomotive. The night, however, was not a clear one, for an east wind had prevailed all day, driving a mist in from the sea which lay in banks over the marshes, lifting at times so that distant objects were quite visible, and then obscuring them in its heavy folds. Consequently it did not at all follow, because the powerful reflecting head-light of the locomotive was visible from the accommodation train, that the dim taillights of the latter were also visible to those on the locomotive. Here was another mischance. The tail-lights in use by the company were ordinary red lanterns without reflecting power.

The station house at Revere stood at the end of a tangent, the track curving directly before it. In any ordinary weather the tail-lights of a train standing at this station would have been visible for a very considerable distance down the track in the direction of Boston, and even on the night of the accident they were probably visible for a sufficient distance


in which to stop any train approaching at a reasonable rate of speed. Unfortunately the engineer of the Portland express did not at once see them, his attention being wholly absorbed in looking for other signals. Certain freight train tracks to points on the shore diverged from the main line at Revere, and the engine-drivers of all trains approaching that place were notified by signals at a masthead close to the station whether the switches were set for the main line or for these freight tracks. A red lantern at the masthead indicated that the main line was closed; in the absence of any signal it was open. In looking for this signal as he approached Revere the engine-driver of the Portland express was simply attending closely to his business, for, had the red light been at the masthead, his train must at once have been stopped. Unfortunately, however, while peering through the mist at the masthead he overlooked what was directly before him, until, when at last he brought his eyes down to the level, to use his own words at the subsequent inquest, "the tail lights of the accommodation train seemed to spring right up in his face."

When those in charge of the two trains at almost the same moment became aware of the danger, there was yet an interval of some eight hundred feet between them. The express train was, however, moving at a speed of some twenty-five or thirty miles an hour, and was equipped only with the old-fashioned hand-brake. In response to the sharply given signal


from the whistle these were rapidly set, but the rails were damp and slippery, so that the wheels failed to catch upon them, and, when everything was done which could be done, the eight hundred feet of interval sufficed only to reduce the speed of the colliding locomotive to about ten miles an hour.

In the rear car of the accommodation train there were at the moment of the accident some sixty-five or seventy human beings, seated and standing. They were of both sexes and of all ages; for it was a Saturday evening in August, and many persons had, through the confusion of the trains, been long delayed in their return from the city to their homes at the seaside. The first intimation the passengers had of the danger impending over them was from the sudden and lurid illumination of the car by the glare from the head-light of the approaching locomotive. One of them who survived the disaster, though grievously injured, described how he was carelessly watching a young man standing in the aisle, laughing and gayly chatting with four young girls, who were seated, when he saw him turn and instantly his face, in the sudden blaze of the head-light, assumed a look of frozen horror which was the single thing in the accident indelibly impressed on the survivor's memory; that look haunted him. The car was crowded to its full capacity, and the colliding locomotive struck it with such force as to bury itself two-thirds of its length in it. At the instant of the crash a


panic had seized upon the passengers, and a sort of rush had taken place to the forward end of the car, into which furniture, fixtures and human beings were crushed in a shapeless, indistinguishable mass. Meanwhile the blow had swept away the smokestack of the locomotive, and its forward truck had been forced back in some unaccountable way until it rested between its driving wheels and the tender, leaving the entire boiler inside of the passenger car and supported on its rear truck. The valves had been so broken as to admit of the free escape of the scalding steam, while the coals from the fire-box were scattered among the debris, and coming in contact with the fluid from the broken car lamps kindled the whole into a rapid blaze. Neither was the fire confined to the last car of the train. It has been mentioned that in the block at Everett a locomotive returning to Salem had found itself stopped just in advance of the accommodation train. At the suggestion of the engine-driver of that train this locomotive had there coupled on to it, and consequently made a part of it at Revere. When the collision took place, therefore, the four cars of which the accommodation train was made up were crushed between the weight of the entire colliding train on one side and that of two locomotives on the other. That they were not wholly demolished was due simply to the fact that the last car yielded to the blow, and permitted the locomotive of the express train fairly to imbed itself in it. As it was,


the remaining cars were jammed and shattered, and, though the passengers in them escaped, the oil from the broken lamps ignited, and before the flames could be extinguished the cars were entirely destroyed,

This accident resulted in the death of twenty-nine persons, and in more or less severe injuries to fifty-seven others. No person, not in the last car of the accommodation train was killed, and one only was seriously injured. Of those in the last car more than half lost their lives; many instantly by crushing, others by inhaling the scalding steam which poured forth from the locomotive boiler into the wreck, and which, where it did not kill, inflicted frightful injuries. Indeed, for the severity of injuries and for the protractedness of agony involved in it, this accident has rarely, if ever, been exceeded. Crushing, scalding and burning did their work together.

It may with perfect truth be said that the disaster at Revere marked an epoch in the history of railroad development in New England. At the moment it called forth the deepest expression of horror and indignation, which, as usual in such cases, was more noticeable for its force than for its wisdom. An utter absence of all spirit of justice is, indeed, a usual characteristic of the more immediate utterances, both from the press and on the platform, upon occasions of this character. Writers and orators seem always to forget that, next to the


immediate sufferers and their families, the unfortunate officials concerned are the greatest losers by railroad accidents. For them, not only reputation but bread is involved. A railroad employee implicated in the occurrence of an accident lives under a stigma. And yet, from the tenor of public comment it might fairly be supposed that these officials are in the custom of plotting to bring disasters about, and take a fiendish delight in them. Nowhere was this ever illustrated more perfectly than in Massachusetts during the last days of August and the early days of September, 1871, Grave men—men who ought to have known better—indulged in language which would have been simply ludicrous save for the horror of the event which occasioned but could not justify it. A public meeting, for instance, was held at the town of Swampscott on the evening of the Monday succeeding the catastrophe. The gentleman who presided over it very discreetly, in his preliminary remarks, urged those who proposed to join in the discussion to control their feelings. Hardly had he ceased speaking, however, when Mr. Wendell Phillips was noticed among the audience, and immediately called to the platform. His remarks were a most singular commentary on the chairman's injunction to calmness. He began by announcing that the first requisite to the formation of a healthy public opinion in regard to railroad accidents, as other things, was absolute frankness of speech, and 


he then proceeded as follows:—" So I begin by saying that to my mind this terrible disaster, which has made the last thirty-six hours so sad to us all, is a deliberate murder. I think we should try to get rid in the public mind of any real distinction between the individual who, in a moment of passion or in a moment of heedlessness, takes the life of one fellow-man, and the corporation that in a moment of greed, of little trouble, of little expense, of little care, of little diligence, takes lives by wholesale. I think the first requisite of the public mind is to say that there is no accident in the case, properly speaking. It is a murder; the guilt of murder rests somewhere."

Mr. Phillip's definition of the crime of "deliberate murder" would apparently somewhat unsettle the criminal law as at present understood, but he was not at all alone in this bathos of extravagance. Prominent gentlemen seemed to vie with each other in their display of ignorance. Mr. B. F. Butler, for instance, suggested his view of the disaster and the measure best calculated to prevent a repetition of it; which last was certainly original, inasmuch as he urged the immediate raising of the pay of all enginemen until a sufficiently high order of ability and education should be brought into the occupation to render impossible the recurrence of an accident which was primarily caused by the negligence, not of an engineer, but of a conductor. Another gentleman described with much feeling his observations during 


a recent tour in Europe, and declared that such a catastrophe as that at Revere would have been impossible there. As a matter of fact the official reports not only showed that the accident was one of a class of most frequent occurrence, but also that sixty-one cases of it had occurred in Great Britain alone during the very year the gentleman in question was journeying in Europe, and had occasioned over six hundred cases of death or personal injury. Perhaps, in order to illustrate how very reckless in statement a responsible gentleman talking under excitement may become, it is worth while to quote in his own language Captain Tyler's brief description of one of those sixty-one accidents which "could not possibly," but yet did, occur. As miscellaneous reading it is amusing.

As four London & North-Western excursion trains on September 2, 1870, were returning from a volunteer review at Penrith, the fourth came into collision at Penruddock with the third of those trains. An hundred and ten passengers and three servants of the company were injured. These trains were partly in charge of acting guards, some of whom were entirely inexperienced, as well in the line as in their duties; and of engine-drivers and firemen, of whom one, at all events, was very much the worse for liquor. The side-lamps on the hind van of the third train were obscured by a horse-box, which was wider than the van. There were no special means of protection to meet the exceptional contingency of three such trains all stopping on their way from the eastward, to cross two others from the westward, at this station. And the regulations for telegraphing the trains were altogether neglected."

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