During the early, foggy morning hours of December 4th 1891 four trains would meet in East Thompson, Connecticut with disastrous consequences. No one could have known earlier that morning that they were all destined to go down in history in what would later be known as The Great East Thompson Train Wreck. This spectacular crash of four trains, is the only train wreck of its' kind in the history of railroading in the United States.
It all happened in what is now known as the "quiet corner" of eastern Connecticut. In 1891, Putnam Connecticut was a busy and not so quiet railroad center, a key station for the New York & New England Railroad. The station and city thrived. As dawn came to Putnam on that fateful day, The Long Island and Eastern States Express had arrived from Hartford. They had been experiencing mechanical problems with the engine and made a request that they get a different engine at Putnam. Waiting and ready for them at Putnam was the New York and New England engine #105. This engine was the pride of engineer Harry Tabor. Harry Tabor was a well known, experienced engineer, well liked by the station crews along the line. Tabor was unmarried and was from a railroading family. He was planning to give up that run in the next two weeks saying that he didn’t like to "speed at such a fearful rate". The men coming from Hartford got off in Putnam and Harry Tabor along with Gerry Fitzgerald, as his fireman, went with engine 105 for the engine swap. The man that was supposed to be with Tabor was Mike Flynn, but he had earlier marked himself off the roster saying that he had a premonition of disaster. The Long Island and Eastern States Express was stopped right next to the Express Freight #212. Freight #212 was made up of 11 cars carrying various freight. Harry Wildes was the engineer and Jacob Boyce was his fireman. The engine crews of the Long Island and Eastern States Express and the Express Freight #212 even exchanged small talk as the Express Freight #212 waited to be cleared to move out. At the same time, The Norwich Steamboat Express was quickly approaching Putnam. It was running about an hour late because the steamboat had been late from New York City. Ed Hurley was the engineer and Will Loudon was his fireman. The Norwich Steamboat Express was carrying about 75 passengers.
At Putnam, the dispatcher had 3 trains to worry about that were all headed to Boston. Speed was always an important factor for trains. They wanted to provide fast service. The dispatcher in Putnam devised a plan to get all 3 trains quickly out of Putnam on their way. There were 2 tracks that went out of Putnam towards East Thompson and on to Boston. Track #1 was a westbound track and track #2 was a eastbound track. The dispatchers' idea was a bit unusual but he saw no problem with it. The Long Island and Eastern States Express would take the eastbound track #2 whenever it was ready once the engines had been swapped. It would stay on this track all the way to Boston. The Express Freight #212 would be allowed to leave ahead of the passenger train but sent east on the westbound track #1 all the way to East Douglas Massachusetts. Once at East Douglas, the freight train would be switched back to track #2 and stay on that all the way to Boston. By doing this, The Express Freight Train #212 could leave first but not get in the way of the Long Island and Eastern States Express which was expected to pass the freight somewhere just past East Thompson. When the Norwich Steamboat Express arrived in Putnam, it only had to make a normal station stop in Putnam and would be immediately cleared to speed off to Boston. The dispatcher thought he had a good plan and it might have been, except he had forgotten about the Southbridge Freight Local which was sitting on the tracks in East Thompson.
East Thompson’s train station was neat and well equipped. The station had a depot, turntable, signal cabin, freight house and had western union facilities. To the west of the station, a double set of tracks ran towards Putnam. There was a large bend with hills on both sides of the track. A branch track went off to the northwest to Southbridge. The station faced south towards the double set of tracks. Just east of the station the tracks ran along a raised embankment and then on a small bridge over a dirt road. On the raised embankment near the station, the words "East Thompson" were displayed in whitewashed stone.
In East Thompson, engineer Joe Page maneuvered The Southbridge Freight Local with Engine #31 with an 8 car train out onto the main line of track #1. The railroad timetable instructions gave him every right to do this. His train would soon have pulled back into the yard to go onto the Southbridge branch rails. It was around 6:30 am in quiet little East Thompson that Engineer Joe Page and his crew heard the shrill cry of a train whistle off in the distance. Since no one had seen the Long Island and Eastern States Express go through yet, they figured it must be her running late. Then the whistle blew again and the awful truth became apparent as the yellowish glow of the headlight rounded the curve. A train was coming right at them on the same track that they were on. Joe Page yelled to his fireman "head for the woods" and they both jumped from the train. The Express Freight #212 smashed into The Southbridge Freight Local with terrific force. Steam went shooting into the air. Wood and steel broke, splinted and flew with great force. Most of the cars on the Southbridge Freight local jackknifed and fires started.
Unaware of the disaster that now lay across both of the tracks in East Thompson, the Long Island and Eastern States Express, as the Putnam dispatcher had planned, was only a few minutes behind but on track #2. The Long Island and Eastern States Express living up to her reputation barreled around the curve at East Thompson at about 50 miles per hour and ran right into the debris and carnage of the previous wreck that now covered both tracks. The engine derailed, did a 180 degree turn, then buried itself into the dirt. A red hot poker was shoved through fireman Gerry Fitzgerald killing him. Engineer Harry Tabor was decapitated. Red hot steam shot out of the engine. The quick thinking of the conductor , Frank Jennison probably saved many lives. As he left the mangled train, he turned off the valves to the gas lighting, preventing a disastrous fire. The people sleeping in the Pullman sleeper cars didn’t have any idea what had happened . Shocked and dazed they stumbled out of the smashed cars to safety. When Engineer Tabor was found, his pocket watch was forever stopped at 6:47 am.
Amid the confusion, someone remembered that The Norwich Steamboat Express was about due. A flagman was sent running down the track to warn them, but too late. The Norwich Steamboat Express came roaring around the curve and ran straight into the back end of the Long Island and Eastern States Express setting a sleeper car and their own engine on fire. Ed Hurley, the engineer and Wil Loudon, the fireman, both miraculously survived the crash with very bad cuts scrapes and bruises. Within a matter of minutes, two trains collided head on, a third train smashed into the debris of that wreck and then a fourth train slammed into all of that debris. The amazing thing about all this wreckage is that only 2 train men were killed and 1 passenger was never found but believed killed in the burnt out wreckage. About 500 feet of burnt out, twisted wreckage and debris covered the tracks.
Stunned and bewildered the residents of East Thompson awoke to an unforgettable sight. The East Thompson station agent, Otis Clark, used the telegraph to call for help. In Webster Massachusetts a passenger trains' run was quickly cancelled and local firemen loaded a pumper and hose cart onto an empty flatbed car which was promptly sent to East Thompson. By midmorning 3 wreck trains arrived from Hartford, Willimantic and Norwood Mass. Fires were put out and the wreckage removed.
Today, the railroad tracks are gone but the old railroad bed still remains. There is nothing left to remind anyone of the great collision. No signs or plaques to remind visitors of the terrible events of 1891. The old station has been torn down but remnants of it can still be found. Nature has overtaken the station, fields and the sides of the old tracks. The bridge over the road is gone and the embankment to the road made more gradual. The view is no longer as it was in 1891 but the basic lay of the land is still the same as it was on that fateful morning. The rail bed, hills, and the station site are still there. They remain silent witness to the history and tragedy of that eventful day, long ago in what is now known as Connecticut’s quiet corner.
The location of the train wreck site and station
From the intersection of route 200 and 193 in Thompson Connecticut, head northeast on route 193. You will travel 1.6 miles down route 193 and come to a Y in the road. Leave route 193 here and bear right onto East Thompson Road. You will pass the raceway golf course, quickly followed by the Thompson Speedway, then a cemetery. After traveling 3.1 miles from route 193, be sure you bear right at the next Y, staying on East Thompson road. From this Y continue another .7 mile to your destination. The parking area is just around a sharp curve in the road. Park on the left side of the road in a sandy parking spot. To know if this is the correct spot, look across the street: you will see a yellow gate on a little hill. You are already on the site of the only 4 train wreck in the history of the United States This is the site of the great East Thompson rain wreck. Follow the old rail bed west and you will come to the location of the old station. - Credit Chuck Straub (visit link