The great Revere train wreck

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    The great Revere train wreck

    August 26 is the 141st anniversary of the worst Massachusetts train wreck ever, counted by casualties.

    The great surge of railroads in New England has largely been forgotten but in its day played a major role in developing commerce and enabling long-distance travel. Before the early 1830s, when the surge began, access to distant places was mainly limited to seaports, some river terminals and a few overland canals. Otherwise, travel for more than a few miles was arduous, slow, costly and rare.

    Like early mill technology, early railroad technology was imported from England, where it had been invented and gained a few years' head start. Domestic manufacturing soon replaced imports--not, however, always to public benefit. Many early railways were built quickly with shallow trackbeds, mostly grade-level crossings and no signals. By the time signals were becoming common in England, some twenty years later, U.S. railroads were on their own course and did not catch up for decades.

    By the early 1870s, Boston was served by 11 railroads: three each to the north, west and south offering both passenger and freight services and operating from their own Boston terminals, plus two providing freight interconnections. Although demand for services grew rapidly, competition became fierce, sometimes at the expense of maintenance and safety.

    The summer of 1871 brought the bonanza era of New England railroads to a coda. On the evening of August 26, two trains operated by Eastern Railroad on its own tracks collided at a small station in Revere, near what is now Winthrop Ave., killing 29 passengers and injuring dozens more. The aftermath of the crash led to new safety standards and much greater use of safety equipment.

    Eastern Railroad was a laggard in the New England rail business, having no system dispatcher, lacking any block signals on its tracks, refusing to communicate train information by telegraph, refusing to install air brakes on its rolling equipment and employing some poorly trained personnel in safety-critical jobs. More than three-quarters of its waymiles were single-tracked, raising risks of collisions.

    In late summer, on a bumper weekend for excursion travel, transporting several times the weekday passenger count, Eastern Railroad had equipment from other railroads, was running many extra trains and was employing crews with marginal experience on its tracks. The disaster occurred just after nightfall, as seabreezes brought fog and mist. In the absence of telegraph communications, a breakdown on a southbound train in Lynn led to long delays. By 8 pm standard time, four northbound trains were waiting for access to a single-track segment in Everett.

    After the southbound train arrived and northbound trains were released, an express trying to make up time pressed on a local, which would stop in Revere. In the hubub of heavy traffic and delays, both crews had lost track of the order of trains. Inexperienced crews manning the Revere station and operating the local failed to take the precaution of pulling onto an alternate track and stopped on the main track northbound, setting the scene for collision. A curve in the track near the station combined with poor visibility to confuse the crew of the express, which started to apply mechanical brakes when only a few hundred feet away.

    Rails slippery with mist offered poor traction, and the express plowed into the rear of the local at substantial speed. Oil lamps set wooden coaches on fire, and several people who survived the collision were trapped aboard the local and succumbed to smoke and fire. The locomotives were destroyed, along with cars of the local and much of the tracks at the scene.

    An investigation led by Massachusetts Railroad Commissioner Charles Francis Adams led to requirements for air brakes, automatic track signals, crash-resistant coaches and telegraphic communications. By the early 1890s, Federal law required air brakes and electrical lights on all railroads. The Revere disaster cost Eastern Railroad about $4 million in settlements, replacements and repairs--comparable to around $80 million today. After the disaster, Eastern Railroad turned financially unstable. In 1890 the company was bought out by the Boston & Maine.

    [ Stewart H. Holbrook, The great rail wreck at Revere, American Heritage, 1957, at ]
    [Francis F.C. Bradlee, The Eastern Railroad: a historical account, Essex Institute, 1917, pp. 71-78]
    [Charles Francis Adams, Notes on Railroad Accidents, Putnam's Sons, 1879]
    [Massachusetts General Court, Report of the Committee on Railroads on matters relating to the Eastern Railroad, 1876]
    [New York Times, September 5 and 11, 1871]
    [Boston Evening Traveler, August 27, 1871]

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