- 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
The first three were late leaving the Boston depot and did not depart in the scheduled order, the second Saugus branch train becoming sandwiched between the main-line local and the express. The latter was the last, so-called candy train to Maine.
One should know that a cardinal rule of the Eastern Railroad in those days was that no northbound train might enter the single-track Saugus branch at Everett junction before any southbound train then due should have arrived and passed off the branch onto the southbound track to Boston. It happened on this evening that a southbound Saugus branch train was delayed at Lynn by some mechanical failure of the locomotive. Thus when the first Saugus local out of Boston reached Everett junction, it had to stop and wait. So did the second train (now the mainline local), and the third; for although it may seem incredible, there was no siding at the junction by which a northbound train for the main line could pass a train waiting to get onto the branch.
The ingenious Everett switchman usually solved this frequent dilemma by parking the waiting branch train on the southbound main track or on the branch itself, under the protection of flagmen, until the tardy southbound branch train arrived. But tonight he was sick; this device never occurred to his replacement.
The long procession of lighted coaches stood motionless as the evening shadows swiftly deepened into night. Inside the crowded cars babies wailed protest, children grew peevish, and the train water boys walked the aisles toting their long-snouted cans with chained tin cups. The news-butchers cried their wares of segars, checkerberry wafers, and the Evening Transcript Then, as now, no member of the train crews would break his solemn oath to keep passengers in wholesome ignorance of the reasons for the delay of trains. All that the several hundred people in the stalled cars could know was that the Eastern was living up to its reputation for running its trains when and how it pleased.
In one of the coaches, all unworried by the vagaries of railroads, sat the Reverend Ezra Stiles Gannett, a venerable figure, somber though kindly, his short crutch canes at his side. Many fellow passengers would have recognized him. These 29 years past he had been the eloquent pastor of the Arlington Street Unitarian Church in Boston. He was now on his way to Lynn, possibly brooding on the sermon he was to deliver there on the morrow.
And there at Everett junction stood the trains, the leading one for almost an hour. But rules were rules on any railroad, even on the graft-ridden, hidebound, and shoddy Eastern. Though the magnetic telegraph lines followed its tracks right through to Maine, there could be no resort to this frivolous device. Not by the Eastern, anyhow. Massachusetts railroad commissioner Charles Francis Adams, son of the diplomat [see page 40—Ed.] and brother of Henry and Brooks, described matters with dramatic clarity. “There was something ludicrous,” he said, “about the spectacle [of a] succession of trains … standing idle … because a locomotive had broken down ten miles off.”
“A simple message to the branch trains,” he explained, “to meet and pass [at a turnout on the branch line] would have solved the difficulty; but, no!—there were the rides, 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.”
Just before the Portland Express left the Boston depot, it finally occurred to Superintendent Prescott that the southbound train due from Lynn had still not arrived. Hence he knew there were three trains either stalled at Everett or only recently released. He ran to the head end of the express to caution its engineer orally to “be on the watch for trains” ahead of him, as if engineers were not in that habit.
Approaching Everett, the express was flagged to a halt behind the last of the stalled trains, which were just then beginning to move, for the delayed southbound from Lynn had finally appeared and cleared the Saugus branch. The first branch train had turned off; the main-line local was just heading for Revere, both of them unobserved and unsuspected by the express, whose engineer saw only a train directly in front of him pulling off on the branch—apparently leaving a clear track ahead on the main line.
This was one of two fatal misidentifications. The other was that of the flagman on the main-line local, who had naturally believed that the train stalled behind him at Everett was what it was supposed to be—the Portland Express. No need to worry; the express would know they were ahead and move with caution.
But all factors of the tragedy had now been compounded. Opening his throttle wide, the express engineer pounded over the frogs at Everett for the fast run north. A light fog had been drifting in from the sea, slicking the tracks, but the express rumbled on, its sandbox pouring friction on the shining rails. Ahead of it, moving leisurely through the fog and night, was the local. At Revere it stopped to let off passengers, and there it stood the few tragic moments needed for the express to close the gap.