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Richmond Switch, Rhode Island Train Wreck

April 19, 1873


Terrible Accident on the Boston and Providence Railroad – Fifteen Persons Killed and Many Wounded.

[illegible] Dispatch to the New York Times

Providence, R.I. April 19. A terrible railroad accident, accompanied by a great sacrifice of human life, took place this morning near Richmond Switch, a small station on the Boston and Providence Railway, about thirty miles from Providence City. The accident occurred to the steam boat train from Stonington for Boston, at 3 o’clock A.M. by the breaking at the bridge spanning the Pawcatuck River, which is about 150 feet from Richmond Switch.

Up to the present writing (9 ˝ P.M.) seven bodies have been recovered from the wreck, five of which have been identified, and it is impossible to say how many more have perished by this fearful catastrophe.


As already stated, there is a bridge across the Pawcatuck River, near Richmond Switch, and just above the bridge there is a dam, which throws the water back into a pond or reservoir for the use of the mills. The water has been very high for some time. During the night, between 12 and 3 o’clock, as near as can be ascertained, this dam gave way, letting the water out in a rush. The sudden flood of water carried away both abutments on both sides of the bridge clean, leaving but the earth bank, so there was not a vestige of the structure remaining.

Although there are two houses near by, no one seems to have heard the great rush of waters or any unusual noise. The steam boat train, consisting of an engine, three flat freight-cars, one second class and two first class passenger-cars, and the smoking-car, approached this [illegible] at the rate of forty miles per hour. This speed was because it was on a down grade. It was then at the first streak of day light, when, before any warning was had, or at least any that was sufficient to be of service, the engine leaped the chasm.

As the train approached its destination, the fireman and engine driver became aware of the existence of the watery gulf before them, but saw the danger too late to prevent the disaster, or even save their own lives by leaping from the engine. So strong was the momentum that the locomotive reached the opposite shore at a bound, a distance of fully thirty feet, and fastened itself into the earth. The headlight and forward part of the engine were above the ruined abutment, or resting on it, while the fender was lying below the embankment. In fact, the engine was resting on the hillside, as it were.

The three freight flats followed, and then the second-class car, all of them going into the river bed. The first-class car telescoped into the rear of the second-class car, and rested on the embankment on the opposite side of the [illegible]. The other passenger-cars and smoking-car followed in quick succession, striking the end of the first car, but they were, not wrecked by any great degree.

These cars were afterward pulled back by the engine of the shore line. The forward cars took to once on fire from the engine, and the flames spread with fearful rapidity. The water was not at sufficient depth to cover the top of the freight crates on the flats, which were burned, and the fire ran into and through the passenger-cars before all the passengers could get out.


The news of the accident was immediately telegraphed to Stonington and Providence, and a little after 5 o’clock a large force of men, accompanied by a number of physicians were in attendance on the ground.

There came on the train forty eight first-class passengers bound for Boston, sixteen bound for this City, twenty-five second-class passengers for Boston and two for this City, making a total of ninety-one passengers. There were also on board nine train men and six railroad men, making a total of 116 persons.


Immediately on the arrival of the relief party, the most vigorous efforts were made to recover the bodies of the dead from the debris, and by 9 o’clock seven were obtained. Including the following:

William D. [illegible], of Providence
Engineer George ELDRIDGE
Fireman Albert F. ALLEN,
of Allen’s Fire Department Supplies, Eddy Street, Providence.
of Boston

The bodies of the other victims were burned beyond identification, and the [illegible] and the engineer were so charred that they were recognized only by the positions they occupied on the engine and also portions of their dress.


The following is a partial list of the wounded:

E. Morrigan, of Boston, three ribs broken
Joseph Phillips,
sailor, of Boston, bruised
John Carter,
of Boston, badly bruised
John Hollingsworth,
of Boston, bruised
Miss Lizzie Evans,
of New York, right ankle fractured
J.J.D. Eldridge,
of New York, bruised
William Finley,
of Boston, badly bruised

All the above persons went through to Boston on the train that came from the scene.

A girl of about eighteen years of age, name unknown at this writing, had her skull fractured.
Dennis BOHAN, of New York, sustained an injury of the wrist.
of Ireland, collar bone broken.
of Ireland, slight contusions and some burns.
of New York, slight bruises.
of New York, [illegible] in the back.
of Ireland, leg fracture and injured internally.
Norah BOHAN,
daughter of above, skull fracture, probably fatal.
Patrick BURNS,
leg fractured.
face bruised.
of Providence, rib fractured.
of New York, slight flesh wound

The majority of those injured were emigrants who had lately landed in the country, and on their way to Boston.


The scene of the disaster was visited this afternoon by thousands of people, and many stories are in circulation regarding the conditions of affairs prior to the disaster, but I forbear to mention them, as I have not heard them from any reliable source.


The bridge which was carried away was recently repaired, and it was claimed by the railroad authorities that they regarded it strong and firm for the purposes it was intended to serve.

The real distance between the abutments was twenty feet, but the chasm after the bridge was carried away was forty feet wide. Across the dam was a common wagon-road bridge which was also carried away. This wrecked bridge struck the railroad bridge and carried it with it. A portion of the floor of the latter bridge was carried down stream perfectly whole, the ties and rails holding it were holding it firmly together.


This evening I had an interview with Capt. Babcock, President of the line and he strongly desired to contradict a statement made in some of the New York evening journals, to the effect that the bridge was unsafe, and was not properly cared for. He asserted that Mr. E.S. Mathews, Superintendent of the line for forty years, and who participated in its construction, was the most careful railroad man in the country, and that if he thought the accident occured [sic] through any oversight of his it would kill him.

I have not had time to investigate this matter with any degree of care, to be able to form an opinion, and shall refrain, for the present, from expressing any.


It is stated, on I know not what authority, that the watchman went out to look at the dam last night, and finding the water rising rapidly, opened his gates and left them in that condition. It is also stated that parties living nearby, heard the noise of the break, but did not get up to see its extent.


The story of the disaster is replete with tragic incidents. When Mr. Allen met his death, he was standing on the front platform of the car, and as the train struck, his foot was caught in the grappling iron, and in this condition he was burned to death. One man was caught under a falling stove, but succeeded in extricating himself, and was saved.

As I write, information has come to me that a portion of a human body was discovered late in the evening, in the river, about 100 feet from the bridge. It was recognized as that of a lady because of a corset which was found almost complete around the waist. Her identity is, of course, unknown. The injured parties have been brought to Rhode Island Hospital in this city and are treated with great care. Coroner Clark Card was notified of the disaster, and turned over the bodies to Mr. Gardner Swartz, the undertaker, it is not considered necessary to hold an inquest.


Orrin Gardner, the Conductor, made the following statement of the affair to your correspondent:

We left Stonington Junction at 3˝, the mail train to follow in about ten minutes. I went through the train and picked up the tickets, then went back to the smoking-car to get torpedoes for signal for the mail train. Just then the awful crash came. I jumped from the train, seized a signal lantern and ran back to stop the mail train; hurried back to find the train all on fire and rapidly being consumed, and people rushing out. I got an ax to cut away the side of one of the cars where a man was lying inside crushed badly, but was driven away by flames, and the poor fellow was burned to death. On crossing the river I saw that the reservoir dam was carried away, bringing with it a carriage bridge which had been swept down with the current, carrying off the tracks and washing away the abutments, leaving a gap of about forty feet wide, which awful chasm the engine leaped, striking the opposite side where a rail pierced the boiler its entire length. The tender was thrown on top of the engine and both the engineer and fireman were instantly killed, and their bodies were burned, as we were unable to get them out. Our train consisted of three long flats of crates one second-class passenger car, three first-class passenger cars and smoking-car in the rear. Five went entirely into the gap, and one partially. The two rear cars remained on the track, and were uninjured. The surviving passengers rendered every assistance in their power.

Scenes at the Hospital

The statement that kerosene oil was employed by the train, and gave origin to the fire, is contradicted, and the railroad authorities assert that nothing but mineral and sperm oil was used in any car belonging to the company. I have just returned from a visit to the Rhode Island Hospital, but no deaths have been reported. Many of the patients are suffering intensely, but everything is being done to alleviate their torments. Hundreds of persons having friends onboard the train are continually arriving here, and are making anxious inquiries respecting their safety.

It is supposed that several other bodies are still in the river, and the search will continue all day to morrow [sic]. A special train will leave in the morning from here, and it is expected that thousands will attend the scene of the disaster.

Extent of the Disaster – Statements of the Survivors.

Special Dispatch to the New York Times

Richmond Switch, R.I., April 10
- The accident of this station is not so serious as at first reported, as far as the loss of lives is concerned. The train left Stonington this morning at 3:15, only ten minutes behind the mail train. Conductor Gardener had just been through the train to collect the tickets; he went back to get a torpedo to use in case his red light should go out, as a warning to the mail-train which he supposed to be close upon him. Scarcely had he returned when he together with the rest of the passengers were thrown down and the car set on fire, the bewildered passengers shrieking for help. The train consisted of flat and passenger cars. The flats and four forward passenger cars were precipitated in the Pawtucket River below in one seething and smoking mass. The engine jumped the gap and landed on the other side in a sand bank, plunging into it with such force as to wreck her completely. Some ideas of her speed may be ascertained from the fact that a piece of rail was broken up and shot through the boiler so that it remained like a shaft exposed at both ends. The engineer, William Guild, when discovered was between the driving wheel and the engine, there being just enough of his body left to identify him. The fireman, George Eldridge, was crushed to a jelly. There were about eighty passengers, and the scene can better be imagined then described. As the overturned stoves and lamps set fire to the wood-work, cries for assistance rent the air from the smoking cauldron- frantic husbands calling for wives, wives for husbands, sons and daughters. Some escaped through car windows, others were pulled out of the water below while many were writhing beneath the ruins. One man, with his body partly out of the window, could extricate himself no further, and was calling wildly, “Oh save me! I am burned to death.” His screams and moans were not heeded, and death put an end to his sufferings.

The Shore Line mail train fortunately saw the wrecked train’s signal, and avoided a repetition of the horror. It was backed to Westerly for supplies and medical assistance which arrived shortly afterward. Facilities for the care of the wounded were meager, there being but a few houses in sight. Everything, however, was done for their comfort.

J. A. Grosvenor, one of the passengers, speaks of the scene as follows: The train went down through the bridge, the abutments being washed out by the [illegible]. The breakage happened not many seconds before the train reached the bridge, hence there was no alarm. There were four cars in the chasm, and these were on fire. They were emigrant, or second-class cars, he should judge, but they were so broken up and nearly consumed by fire that it was impossible for him to identify them.

Jonas Holstrom, also a passenger, states that the rate of speed before reaching Richmond Switch was about thirty-five miles an hour, and the first intimation he had of the disaster was a sharp concussion which burst open, the car in which he was seated and partially filled it with debris of the preceding car. In front of him were two young men, while behind was Benjamin R. Knapp, Jr. of Boston. Immediately after the shock he heard them call for help to extricate themselves, as they were wounded and held fast by splinters of the preceding car. On reaching Mr. Knapp, one of his legs was found injured, and desperate attempts were made to extricate him and the two young men above mentioned, when a volume of flame shot into the car. The rescuers had barely time to assist Mr. Knapp, when they were obliged to flee for their lives, and the two young men were left to meet a horrible fate. With these two exceptions, all of the other occupants of the car were known to have perished.

The number of passengers supposed to be killed is fifteen. The bodies will be encased in coffins as fast as recovered. All the badly wounded were taken to Providence this evening, and placed in the hospital in that place.

The New York Times, New York, NY 20 Apr 1873


Boston, Mass. April 19 – A number of passengers, survivors of the wrecked Stonington train, reached Boston this afternoon, among them several of the wounded, whose names were given in the Providence dispatch. None of them appeared to be seriously injured, except Nolan, the brakeman, who was taken to his home in Cabot Street. The following named persons, all sailors and residents of East Boston, who went from here to New York in a ship last Wednesday, are among the wounded: Thomas Burke, injured on the head; James Todd, head and legs injured; Edward Messenger, injured on the head; Wm. Finley, head and legs injured; George H. Brennan, head and legs injured; John Hollingsworth, head and shoulders injured; John Carting, head and ribs hurt, and injured internally.

The New York Times, New York, NY 20 Apr 1873


Bodies Recovered

The bodies of William D. Guile, engineer; George Eldred, fireman; Albert Allen, of Providence; Jerry Creamer of Boston, and two unknown persons have been recovered.

The New York Times, New York, NY 20 Apr 1873


Latest Report on the Number Killed

Providence, April 19 –
There were probably but seven persons killed, namely: Messrs. Allen, Creamer, Guile, Eldridge, Callahany, and two unknown persons, whose limbs were burned off, leaving their trunks only. No inquest is deemed necessary by the Coroner. The bodies have been brought to this city.

The New York Times, New York, NY 20 Apr 1873


Rhode Island Hospital, where the injured survivors of the disaster are under treatment, was also a centre for interest to many, but no one was permitted inside the gates without special authority from the resident physician. The patients are all mostly Irish emigrants, of the poorer class, who have just landed in this country and were on their way to meet their friends in Boston. Their condition has met with the warmest sympathy, and numerous offers in the shape of money, clothes, and other comforts have been made by the inhabitants.

I visited the hospital to-day, and was shown through the various wards by Mr. Nasoo, the courteous superintendent. The appearance of the institution is perfect in every detail, and all that skill and care can devise is being done to alleviate the distress of the sufferers.

The medical attendants are Drs. Caswell and Harding, the former gentleman being the first physician who was present at the scene of the disaster.

The names of the patients are as follows:

Mary Bohan, Fractured leg and right rib.
Norah Bohan,
her daughter, fracture of the skull.
Patrick Williams,
cut and bruised in the face and head.
Frank Johnson,
slight flesh wound.
Dennis Heffernan,
fracture of the collar bone.
Patrick Burns,
fracture of the right leg.
James Donovan,
ankle burned and bruised.
Henry Stearns,
back and leg bruised.
Thomas Nolan,
fracture of the thigh.

I conversed with all the patients, and found them extremely thankful for the kind treatment they were receiving. Some of them were suffering intensely, and were loud in denunciation of the Company, but I am not much disposed to credit their statements, given in evident ignorance of the facts, and suffering under high mental excitement and physical tortures.

The doctors state that all patients will be discharged to-morrow, with the exception of those who have fractured limbs, and they will be conveyed to their destination by the Company. Those who are to be retained in the hospital will probably not remain over three to six weeks. They do not apprehend that any of the cases will prove fatal, so that it is possible there will be no further victims of the Richmond Switch disaster. All rumors to the contrary notwithstanding, only seven bodies have been recovered from the wreck. Their names were Guile, the engineer; Eldred, the fireman; and Mr. Allen, all of Providence: Jerry Creamer of Boston: and in the pocket of another body found a card bearing the name M. Fleming: also a paper showing that he belonged to St. Mary’s Star of the Sea T.B.A. of Boston. One leg and one arm were burned off. None of the authorities here know anything about John Callahan, of New York, who, it was stated, was identified among the dead.

The New York Times, New York, NY 21 Apr 1873

Articles transcribed by Leslie Kraus.  Thank you Leslie!


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