Monday, January 16, 2012

Beyond the Headlines

Photo by J. K Patch of Shelburne Falls

Early on the evening of April 7, 1886 the Eastern Express was traveling east toward Greenfield, MA when it came off its rails and plunged down a rocky embankment to the Deerfield River south of Bardwells Ferry. Passengers and crew were pinned in the wreckage or thrown from the cars. Fire ignited in three of the cars. Darkness soon fell, as did a spring snow.

The train consisted of the steam engine, tender, express and baggage car, postal and baggage car, a smoker, two passenger coaches and a parlor car. It was manned by the engineer, conductor, two brakemen, mail agent and postal clerk, express agent and an executive of National Express (small package carrier) as well as an individual listed as the "colored porter" Aaron Lewis. There were several traveling salesmen aboard. Other passengers may have been traveling for business or pleasure.

It was described “by far the most serious accident of the year” by the Massachusetts Board of Railroad Commissioners in their Annual Report. The news quickly spread to such places as Des Moines, IA and the papers made graphic and somewhat exaggerated reports of the tragedy:

The Cars Take Fire and a Passenger is Roasted Alive Without the Chance of Succor.

Probably a Hundred Passengers on Board, and only Three Found Uninjured—The Rails Spread.

A Dozen Dead Bodies Recovered and the Work Not Yet Finished—Many Killed While Falling.

Reporters were as plentiful as “potato bugs in June and twice as active” according as The Day of New London, CT. They reported on the 9th of April that “no less than 10,000 people have visited the spot, some walking six and 10 miles to view the wreck.” Graphic descriptions of the injuries and the demeanor of the family members waiting for news of their loved ones were carried in the news.

The Fitchburg Sentinal reported the names of the casualties the next day: 10 dead, 31 injured and 5 uninjured. Among the dead was the engineer, Herbert P. Littlejohn of North Adams. The Railroad Commissioners noted his heroism as, fatally scalded, he made his way back up the bank and west along the tracks to flag any approaching train and avert further disaster. Similarly, the fireman Charles Richardson walked east toward West Deerfield. A train was sent out from Greenfield bringing aid and carrying away the injured and dead.

Also on the train that day were the Engineer’s brother, Albert Littlejohn, and his family. In the 1880 census of North Adams, the engineer, Herbert, was listed as well as Albert, who was described as a 16-year-old railroad employee, living with their parents and siblings. The family also had six boarders who were employed by the railroad at that time. (H)Albert Littlejohn and his wife Lena, residents of Buckland in 1886, survived the train wreck. Their children Viola, age 3, died at the site of the accident, and Otis, age 1, died the next day. Despite the tragedy, working on the railroad was in the blood of the Littlejohn family. Census records show that Albert and Lena later had another son, Herbert P. Littlejohn, who grew to become a railroad brakeman.

Another passenger, Anson K. Warner, was Chairman of the Selectmen in the Town of Greenfield. He died of his injuries a few days later. On April 27, 1886 a town meeting in Greenfield approved a resolution which stated, in part:

That to the offices which he was from time to time elected, he brought an unquestioned ability, sound judgment, and an unswerving fidelity to the interests of the town.
That in bequeathing a large sum of money to charitable and educational uses and purposes for the benefit of indigent boys and girls resident of the town, he manifested his interest in the welfare of its citizens and most generously supplemented the many kind and charitable deeds of his life time.

Charles Durgin, one of the salesmen, seems to be erroneously listed on as buried in nearby Leverett. His funeral took place in South Boston (Boston Journal) and it is more likely he is buried in Mt. Hope cemetery in Cambridge, not Leverett.

Among the injured were Henry Couillard, at one time the landlord of the "hotel in the Village" of Charlemont. Chauncy Bryant was the Deputy Sheriff in Greenfield. Also from Greenfield was Freeman S. Hagar, hotel keeper, whose household included 8 servants in the 1880 census. Hager reportedly held his injured townsman, Mr. Warner, as they waited for aid.

The causes for the track failure were found to be structural, as the fill on the steep slope shifted. Another train had passed over the track about two hours before. A recent visual inspection had shown no obvious flaws. The report of the Commissioners found the causes to be:

The use as a portion of the embankment of crib-work battered against the slope of a steep ledge
The want of proper drainage at this spot.
The over-loading of the embankment at a place where a concealed defect existed.
And these causes, in combination with the state of the weather, fully account for the catastrophe


  1. This was a very interesting post. I love reading about past history that uncovers a story. Thank you for sharing.

    1. I have a couple of photos I'm trying to get added here.