The Train Wreck of 1888

With all the advances in technology today we really take a lot for granted. Whether it’s your cell phone, GPS system in your car, or just the remote for your TV, we can communicate instantly. Of course it wasn’t always that way as we all well know. I remember the only person to have a phone in his car was private eye Frank Cannon on TV. Probably because he was too big to fit in a phone booth. Anyway, where I’m going with this is that modern communication can give us a quick “heads up” in critical situations. Unfortunately, in 1888 they didn’t have that luxury, and along with errors in judgment, the results were catastrophic.

December 10th 1888 was a foggy and cold Monday in Ashland. Trains regularly traveled from Boston to Worcester and back but something was wrong that morning. The outbound train from Boston sat idling before the Ashland depot as railroad and local officials scurried around. The cause of all this commotion could be found half a mile down the tracks towards Worcester, just behind the Tilton Boot and Shoe Company on Pleasant St.

Earlier that morning, a long freight left Worcester on its scheduled run to Boston. Somewhere around Grafton, the rear cars uncoupled, and the loss was not discovered until the train pulled into Ashland. Knowing it was a busy route the engineer sidetracked the remaining cars on his train and went back towards Worcester to retrieve the stragglers. The engineer and the conductor found the cars, reattached them, and headed back to Ashland to connect the rest of the train.

Here’s the recipe for disaster. A second freight train left Worcester heading towards Ashland. This freight train was considered a “fast” freight. Or at least at fast one for that era at a whopping 30 mph. The first train left Worcester around 1:30 AM and would normally have cleared the tracks by the time the second one arrived at 3:40 AM, but unbeknownst to the second engineer, this was not true. Although his train had been stopped in Grafton and advised of the situation in Ashland, he chose to move on full speed ahead. Arriving in Ashland and realizing the first train was still there it was clearly too late. He yelled to his fireman to jump just before his train slammed into the back of the first one.

Immediately, thirteen cars jumped the track quickly reducing them to piles of twisted metal and wood. Neighbors and passengers from the train held at the station, quickly gathered at the scene. Fortunately the derailed cars fell in the opposite direction of the homes in the area and no one locally was hurt. The engineer who jumped from the second train survived suffering broken ribs and bruises. The brakeman fell under one of the broken cars carrying grain and was buried in oats. Workers dug quickly to extract him before he suffocated. And after pulling him out and expecting the worse, his only injury was a scratch on his head.

Cleaning up this carnage proved to be a challenge. Where this was a major route, wrecking trains were quickly sent from Boston and Worcester to clear the tracks and clean up the remains. For the next day and a half, passengers from Boston to Worcester were forced to exit the Boston train, walk around the wreckage, and board a waiting Worcester train on the other side. Rail hands worked quickly to replace the mangled sections of track, and by 4:00 PM the next day the tracks were re-opened.

With service restored, now starts the blame game. The property damage was estimated at $30,000.00; a considerable sum in 1888. The Boston and Albany conducted an official investigation in Boston. Witnesses at the scene felt the cause was ice on the tracks, and heavy fog which obscured the vision of the second train’s engineer. Testimony from the Grafton station quickly torpedoed that theory where the second train had stopped in Grafton and was informed of the situation in Ashland. Concluding that the warning was ignored, both the engineer and conductor were found responsible and discharged.

Local sentiment didn’t let the railroad off that easily though. Critics close to the railroad industry claimed that the Boston and Albany was using larger and faster locomotives without a corresponding increase in crew. They claimed these new engines could typically pull almost twice as many cars as their predecessors causing a potentially unsafe situation in an emergency.

I’m not sure an increase in crew would have helped in this situation. If the engineer and conductor took it upon them to proceed “business as usual,” I doubt a 50 man crew would have made a difference. But still, one has to wonder. What were they thinking?

Many thanks to Kay Powers for her contributions to this article.

Steve Leacu for Ashland Directions