- 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
Because the Eastern management feared nothing quite so much as anything new, the local’s rear equipment displayed two common red-globed lanterns without reflectors, surely no beacons to gleam far or strong in the mist of an August night along the shore. And still another oddity of Eastern equipment conspired to bring disaster: a freight branch joined the main line at Revere. Whether or not the switch was closed was indicated by a light hanging high on a mast. As the express approached Revere at full speed, the engineer was peering upward, looking for the signal light. It showed a clear switch. A second later he saw the two pitiful blobs of red straight in front of him. The Eastern’s fastest train plowed into the rear of the waiting local.
The crash itself, together with overturned lamps and flying oil, and the roaring firebox of the locomotive, did the rest. Twenty-nine died that night, one way or another. Fifty-seven were injured. This was disaster enough, even though the number of dead, which included the venerable Mr. Gannett, was seventeen short of an accident at Norwalk on the New York & New Haven and twelve short of another wreck on the Lake Shore at Angola, New York. Yet this tragedy at Revere was to have incomparable influence on railroad operation in the United States.
The dreadful wreckage by the little depot had scarcely ceased smoking when a mass meeting of shocked citizens was held in Boston. It was followed one after the other by meetings in Lynn, Salem, Newburyport, and Portland, all served, if that was the word, by the Eastern Railroad. And a champion, fullblown and terrible in his wrath, sprang up to attack the Eastern by name, and by implication the common carriers of all New England. He was Wendell Phillips, an all-round reformer and possibly the most fanatical man in Massachusetts.
In seeking a reason for the tremendous excitement surrounding the accident at Revere, one comes to wonder if it were not due in part to the fact it happened so near to Boston, a town of still yeasty agitators searching for a cause to take the place of abolition. The rights of women, temperance, prison reform, these and lesser movements had been taken up; they were moderately good causes, but they somehow lacked the stuff that made men see red. For example, Wendell Phillips himself had been a candidate for governor of the combined forces of temperance and labor reform, but had polled a weak 20,000 votes. But now at a mass meeting in Swampscott, a village on the Eastern Railroad, he leaped to the platform in a new cause.
Sixty years had grayed Mr. Phillips’ locks. They had done nothing at all to mellow him. Reporters from the Boston papers heard him charge that the disaster was “deliberate murder” and that the criminals were the officials of the Eastern Railroad of Massachusetts. He said a great deal more, too, and the longer he spoke the more vitriolic he became.
This practiced agitator had his Swampscott audience in tears for the innocent victims, and in fury at the corporate assassins. He went on to speak at other hurriedly called meetings not only in Eastern territory but in Worcester and other cities on the Old Colony and the Boston & Maine railroads. It mattered not at all that he knew little about railroads; for full three decades his vibrant voice had been a harp of hate against what he considered Evil. The Eastern Railroad was Evil, a hellish slayer of trusting people.
While Mr. Phillips talked on, Mr. Adams of the Massachusetts Board of Railroad Commissioners began a thorough investigation into the operating practices of the Eastern. Superintendent Prescott reiterated his doubts about use of the magnetic telegraph. No, said he, it wouldn’t do. The proper way to transmit train orders was man to man, from superintendent to conductor or engineer. To learn how Prescott’s method worked out in practice, Adams called Eastern conductors and engineers to the stand. One conductor said Prescott usually waited until a train was due to leave, then told him: “When you pass Smithers [conductor of an incoming train], tell him we’re going to run an extra, leaving Boston at three o’clock. Tell him if he can pass it at Lynn, all right. If not, let him keep clear.”
Continuing to delve into this hit-or-miss system, Commissioner Adams brought out an instance when an Eastern freight train waited all night, or some eight hours, at Salem for an extra passenger train which never showed up. It was spending the night at Ipswich, waiting for the freight.
When the Eastern’s system of train orders had been aired, Adams turned to the matter of brakes. One of the conductors involved in the wreck at Revere testified that he had often complained to Prescott how impossible it was to make a quick stop with the hand brakes with which Eastern trains were equipped. Prescott’s reply was invariably to “do the best you can.”
Adams called railroad men of other lines to give evidence to the fact that Westinghouse’s air brake had been in use for periods varying from a few months to almost two years. An official of the Old Colony also testified that his line started to use the telegraph back in 1857.