May 26 - October 9, 2009

Wreck of a Central New England Railway train in Bloomfield, Connecticut, January 1901

Wreck of a Central New England Railway train in Bloomfield, Connecticut, January 1901


Train Wreck! Crashes, Calamities and Catastrophes in Connecticut

Dodd Research Center Gallery
Curator: Laura Smith

Almost from the beginning of the building of a system of railroads in the United States can we date the first train accidents. The first recorded accident that involved a casualty occurred on the South Carolina Railroad in 1831, when a fireman tied down a safety value and was killed in the resulting explosion.

Connecticut holds the dubious distinction as the location of the country’s first major railroad bridge disaster, when, on May 6, 1853, a New York & New Haven Railroad train went through an open drawbridge over the Norwalk River in South Norwalk, killing forty-six people with many injured. Other famous wrecks include the “Tarriffville Disaster” of January 1878, in which thirteen were killed and over seventy were injured, and a wreck in East Thompson in December 1891, which involved the collision of four trains in a matter of minutes.

The dominant railroad line in Connecticut from 1872 to 1969, the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad, better known as the New Haven Railroad, experienced many wrecks during the years it was controlled by financier J. P. Morgan in the early 1900s. In Morgan’s zeal to monopolize all railroad traffic in southern New England he let the infrastructure and equipment deteriorate. Other contributing factors included increasingly heavier locomotives, rules violations by workers who were forced to run the trains on tight schedules, and ever increasing density of passenger and freight traffic.

The high number of accidents led to investigations by the Interstate Commerce Commission and the implementation and enforcement of a myriad of safety rules, and the New Haven Railroad, like most railroad carriers, experienced fewer accidents per train mile as the 20th century advanced.

This exhibit shows photographs and documents from collections in the Railroad History Archive at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center. The curator wishes to thank historian J. W. Swanberg and UConn student Erika Toto for their assistance with this exhibit.