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The Great Rail Wreck At Revere

June 2024
11min read

Single-track lines run by one-track minds gave the reformers of Boston their biggest cause since abolition

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.

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 40Ed.] 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 bethe 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.

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.

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.

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