The Great Rail Wreck At Revere

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Although Commissioner Adams was determined to show, if need be, that the Eastern was guilty of incompetence and stupidity, he did not think Wendell Phillips was contributing anything toward the improvement of railroad safety. Adams paused long enough in his investigation to remark caustically that to hear Phillips tell it, one might well suppose railroad officials were in the custom of plotting to bring about disasters and taking fiendish delight in affairs like that at Revere. On the contrary, said Adams; next to the immediate sufferers in accidents and their families, it was the unfortunate railroad men concerned to whom wrecks were the supreme tragedy. An employee implicated in a wreck lived thereafter under a stigma, no matter if he were in no way to blame for it.

Meanwhile the press of New England took up the cries of protest and revenge sounded by Wendell Phillips. Pamphlets attacking the Eastern (and other roads) appeared. The president of the Eastern felt the urge to resign, and Charles F. Hatch, of the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern, was brought in as general manager. He installed train dispatching by telegraph. The Westinghouse brake was quickly adopted by the Eastern and other New England lines.

The Revere accident cost the Eastern something like half a million dollars in damages. For another decade this road was under almost continuous attack by pamphleteers and platform and pulpit reformers, while it teetered on the verge of bankruptcy. The Eastern fought back by engaging as counsel and spokesman the clever, sardonic, and slightly tarnished Benjamin F. Butler. It was possibly an unwise move. General Butler was eminently fit to meet attacks with masterful vituperation. It wasn’t quite enough. The press rode Butler hard, charging among other things that while on the Eastern payroll he had sought to swindle the corporation.

For thirteen years after 1871, the Eastern never quite knew peace; then it lost its identity by a long lease to its up-and-coming rival, the Boston & Maine. Doubtless much of its trouble stemmed from the state of mind that not only made the Great Revere Disaster possible but, as Adams showed, virtually assured it.

Adams later wrote about the disaster in one of the most effective railroad documents in the United States. Published modestly as Notes on Railroad Accidents, it is not only a complete report on operating practices of the period, but a masterpiece of narrative prose. He wanted the roads to live up to the revolutionary opportunities that offered on every hand. He thought of steam locomotion as a great natural force. Nothing could stop it. But he was maddened at the corruption and the complacency which harassed and checked its national beneficence. Adams really loved railroads. He was our great prophet and civilizer of the steamcars. His fair, careful, and dramatic report and analysis of the stupid practices of the Eastern, which was not alone in its stupidity, was of infinite influence in freeing the railroad mind from the archaic habits of thinking that dated from stagecoach times.