Known as “The Great East Thompson Train Wreck,” it involved four trains of the New York & New England Railroad: the Long Island and Eastern States Express from New York to Boston; the Norwich Steamboat Express from new London to Boston; the Southbridge Freight, a local train to Southbridge, Mass.; and freight train no. 212.
It started with the eastbound 212. To keep it from delaying the eastbound Long Island and Eastern States Express and the Steamboat Express, conductor William Dorman got orders in Putnam, Connecticut, to shift to westbound track no. 1, pass East Thompson and switch back to the eastbound track no. 2 in East Douglas, Massachusetts, 19 miles away. But no one notified the East Thompson station that an eastbound train was on the westbound track. As the train crew was coupling cars to the Southbridge freight train on the westbound track, Dorman’s freight train slammed into the engine. Several cars jackknifed and one was thrown across both tracks.
Moments later, the Long Island and Eastern States Express rounded the sharp curve at about 50 mph and crashed into the thrown car on track no. 2. The engine spun around, vaulted off the embankment, struck a telegraph pole and crashed. Steam plowed the soft gravel for about 150 feet and destroyed a home.
That crash killed Express engineer Harry Tabor and fireman Jeremiah Fitzgerald of Boston. Dazed trainmen tried to send a flagman to signal the Norwich Steamboat Express but it was too late. That train barreled around the curve and drove nearly 8 feet into the rear Pullman sleeper of the Long Island and Eastern States Express, setting the sleeper and engine cab on fire.
All this occurred in the space of 5 minutes.
Hundreds of passengers were injured. All four engines were destroyed, as were the sleeper and a baggage car, and the track was torn up for about 500 yards east of the passenger station.
The Railroad History Collections here in Archives & Special Collections have a wealth of history about the railroads of southern New England, particularly the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad, better known as the New Haven Railroad. For more information about the collection of 50,000+ photographs, 4000 linear feet of records, 5000+ maps, and innumerable timetables and annual reports in the collection, visit http://railroads.uconn.edu/.