- Historic Sites
The Great Rail Wreck At Revere
Single-track lines run by one-track minds gave the reformers of Boston their biggest cause since abolition
April 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 3
So long as it remained in public consciousness it was known as the Great Revere Disaster. Written or spoken it deserved the adjective, and the capitals. Worse railroad wrecks had happened before; worse were to come after. But none had such far-reaching results as this tragedy which in 1871 took place in the small Massachusetts village whose name sought to honor the state’s incomparably best-known hero.
It is probably true that all major disasters have multiple causes. Weather contributed a little, but not much, to the one at Revere. Its basic and overpowering cause, however, lay deep in the rigidity of mind of officials of the Eastern Railroad Company, from its president down to and including its superintendent, Jeremiah Prescott, of a family noted lor its patriots and eminent men of letters.
As to Superintendent Prescott, he was a man who patently wanted no truck with at least two and possibly more of the so-called improvements in the technology of the steamcars, namely the new atmospheric brake of George Westinghouse and the not-so-new magnetic telegraph invented by Samuel F. B. Morse, a native of Charlestown—just across the river from the Eastern Railroad’s Boston terminal. Either one of these devices could have prevented the tragedy at Revere. It may be said in excuse of Prescott that in 1871 only one road in Massachusetts, the Boston & Providence, was equipped with the Westinghouse brake. In regard to the Morse invention, other roads shared Prescott’s attitude. The New York, Providence & Boston, commonly known as the Stonington Line, went so far as to denounce it by implication as a most dangerous thing. In seeking to assure the public about the safety of its operating practices, the Stonington Line’s advertisements carried the legend: “No Trains Run by Telegraph.”
These prejudices against innovations held by New England railroads have a fine irony: the first train order ever sent by telegraph in America was dispatched in 1851 by Charles Minot, late of the Boston & Maine, who had gone “out West” to become general Superintendent of the New York & Erie. Yet twenty years later Superintendent Prescott of the Eastern Railroad of Massachusetts was ready to grant only that, while the telegraph might work under certain conditions, speaking for himself, he preferred not to rely on a mere machine for the dispatching of trains. Then he went down to the depot on Boston’s Causeway Street to operate trains in the fashion favored by his company.
It was the twenty-sixth day of August, 1871, a Saturday. A hot sun broke blistering through the early mist to set fire to the shining grasshopper vane on Faneuil Hall, and pick out the copper-green State House dome on Beacon Hill. Long before noon the swarming North End was sweltering. The dog days had come. Urchins in the North End turned on the hydrants, while their elders tried to find relief on the steps and fire escapes of tenements. Quincy Market swarmed with fies.
Clerks in the sedate banking houses and offices of State Street were permitted to remove their jackets. Their betters merely unbuttoned the broadcloth swallowtails and Prince Alberts of their caste. After all, late afternoon or early evening would find the Hub’s men of affairs in the cars of the Eastern, heading lor their summer cottages and the welcome salt breezes of the North Shore. Many of their families were already there, and the violet-paned windows of Beacon Hill were shuttered, the parlors ghostly with the forms of dust-draped furniture. Down on Boston Common people lay on the grass under the big old elms. But most Bostonians who could afford it were trying to get out of town for this next-to-the-last weekend before the schools should open.
The main line of the Eastern Railroad ran along the North Shore and up to Portland, the Maine metropolis; and due to the overbuilding and mergers of previous years, the Eastern now owned two almost parallel lines between Everett, a Boston suburb, and Lynn, a rising industrial town on the route to Maine. One of these short parallel lines was the single-track Saugus branch; the other was the main line and it ran through Revere. The junction, or Y, was at Everett (see map on page 29).
On this particular hot and humid Saturday the Eastern’s staff in the Boston depot was hard-pressed by the shore-bound crowds. Superintendent Jeremiah Prescott was there in full voice, directing all energies to getting trains made up and started; once they were off, however, he and his staff seemed to lose all interest in what became of them. By early afternoon the timecard began to go to pieces. By early evening the actual arrivals and departures of Eastern trains had little in common with the schedule chalked on the station blackboard. Yet Superintendent Prescott had survived similar emergencies in the past, and he remained unruffled now as the gaslights went on in the depot and the head lamps of locomotives cut the train shed gloom and swirling smoke.
Between 6:30 and 8 P.M., four trains were posted to depart—two to leave at 6:30 and 7, respectively, and take the Saugus branch; then a main-line local at 7:15; and the main-line Portland Express at 8. Although the main line was double-tracked, all four trains were to run over the northbound rails to Everett. There the first and second would normally take the Saugus branch; the third and fourth would use the main line.