Connecticut

1853 Norwalk Railroad Accident – The First American Railroad Bridge Disaster

Dr. Gurdon Wadsworth Russell spent more than 50 years working for the Aetna insurance company as medical director, leaving the company in 1902. But his tenure there almost ended in 1853 when he miraculously survived the Norwalk railroad accident.

Russell belonged to a group of physicians returning from the sixth annual convention of the American Medical Association in New York. The train, travelling north, began to lurch and shake.

Sketch of the Norwalk Railroad accident

Sketch of the Norwalk Railroad accident

From his seat in the third passenger car, Russell couldn’t immediately see what was happening. But he would quickly find out. His train car abruptly snapped in two. The front end dropped down. The back end, where he sat, remained suspended hanging off the edge of the Norwalk rail bridge across the Norwalk Harbor. And so he witnessed firsthand the first major railroad bridge accident in the United States.

Norwalk Railroad Accident

Railroading was still relatively new at that time, and accidents and derailments were part of the business. Many safety features we know today had not been invented.

The Norwalk drawbridge had a signal to warn approaching trains when it opened to allow a ship to pass. A red metal ball suspended by the side of the track where the engineer could see it well before he neared the bridge.

The ball worked on the morning of May 6, 1853 at about 10:00 when the bridge opened to let the steamer SS Pacific pass. With the 281-foot vessel clear, the bridge had not yet swiveled back into place as the train from the New York, New Haven Railroad rounded a bend. The engineer then saw the open bridge.

By that point, it was too late. Investigations concluded the train’s engineer, Edward Tucker, had failed to check the signal. He had only recently returned to the line after suffering an injury in another accident. Tucker was not overly familiar with the route. Some accounts of the event say he filled in for another engineer on the train that day. The train was supposed to be travelling at no more than six miles per hour when it crossed the bridge, but Tucker had it travelling at least 30 miles per hour.

By the time Tucker threw on his brakes and reversed the engine, the result was inevitable. He and the fireman jumped from the cab of the train just before it crashed.

Investigation

The engine hurdled across the opening in the bridge and slammed into the abutment in the harbor. The first car broke apart and submerged into the water and the second came down on top of it. In the third car, where Russell was riding, the force of the impact snapped it in two. One woman passenger catapulted out of the gaping opening at the front of the car and down onto the cars in the river. She miraculously survived with relatively minor injuries.

Those in the cars in the water were not so fortunate. A reported 46 to 50 people perished, among them seven physicians and a new bride headed to Boston for her honeymoon. Dr. Russell assisted in rescuing as many passengers as he could and attempted to resuscitate those being pulled from the water who weren’t breathing. He reported in a published account of the accident that one victim was successfully resuscitated.

In the wake of the accident, the Connecticut Legislature determined that trusting the engineer’s eyes to notice a signal was not adequate; it passed a law that declared all trains had to come to a complete stop before proceeding across any drawbridge.

This story was updated in 2021.

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