Richmond Switch Disaster
An account of the Richmond Switch railroad disaster, April 19, 1873, by R∴W∴ Richard Lynch, Curator/Librarian
Richmond is a quaint rural town within the state that many Rhode Islanders may have never visited. If you travel on I-95 south to Connecticut you pass through the outskirts of Richmond and probably would not have even known it were it not for the small roadside sign that says, "Entering Richmond". Railroad lines have also passed through Richmond since the very earliest times, connecting New York, Providence, Boston and points north and south. Today, the Amtrak Acela trains reach some of the highest speeds of over 160 mph as they pass through the rural town.
In the small Richmond hamlet of Wood River Junction, the main road is Church Street (Rt. 91), which runs east-west. As you drive east you intersect with Switch street and just after this intersection you see the tranquil waters of Meadow Brook Pond. Those canoeing or fishing today at the pond know nothing of the horror that took place nearly 145 years ago.
Back in 1873 Wood River Junction was then known as 'Richmond Switch' and was the site of one of the greatest railroad accidents in American history. Richmond Switch was an important junction in the days of steam locomotives. It had a passing track, water tank, and small station.
The week prior to April 19 had been dreary with on and off rain. The 3 days prior had experienced torrential rains that would contribute to an unexpected disaster. The G.N. Ennis grist mill had a dam at Meadow Brook pond and stream that was used for generating power. The dam held back nearly 40 acres of water. The heavy rains of the previous 3 days had swollen the pond and a small unnoticed leak in the dam caused the dam to burst sometime that evening. A wall of water 10 feet high quickly raced down Meadow Brook stream carrying the road bridge and then burst into the nearby Pawcatuck River. The nearby railroad bridge over the river only 100' away was also washed away. Everything was gone; the abutments, track, railroad ties, had all been washed down stream and only a 40' gap remained.
The "Steam Boat" train, probably originating in New York City was heading to Stonington, Connecticut and was running late. The train was heavily overloaded with passengers numbering over 100, baggage, and freight. The train consisted of a locomotive and tender, three freight cars, a second-class passenger car, two first-class passenger cars and a smoking car. The train was about to pull out of Stonington at the same time the "Shore Line" from New London arrived. The two train conductors argued about who would depart first. The "Boat Train" was finally given the right of way and proceeded north. If fate would have had the "Shore Line" train leave first, the same fate would have taken even more lives as it had far more passengers.
After leaving Stonington station it was followed by a mail train about 10 minutes behind it. It made a scheduled stop at the Westerly station and then proceeded onward at approximately 35-40 mph. The train traveled along not knowing the bridge was gone and the once 20' span had now grown to a 40' void. The conductor and engineer did not see that the bridge was out until it was too late to stop. The train left the tracks and lurched across the 40' gap with the locomotive embedding itself 7' deep into the bank on the opposite side. The three freight cars were instantly submerged in the river and the passenger cars crashed into these. Many passengers were thrown from the mangled cars into the cold waters of the river. The time was just after 3:00 AM.
Many of the passengers were trapped in the overcrowded and mangled cars. They were set aflame from the burning locomotive and its firebox as well as the coal stoves in each passenger car used for heat. The fires were intense and despite the efforts of the locals who were now on the scene trying to rescue those trapped, many died. The cries of the trapped passengers were deafening. The fire was intense and there was nothing that could be done. Most of the dead were burnt beyond recognition and many were cremated by the intense fire. Historians believe the death toll exceeded 100 as the passenger cars were packed beyond capacity.
In these early days, there generally were no passenger manifests. People purchased a ticket at stations along the way and got on and off as they reached their destinations. Many of the passengers were said to be Irish immigrants traveling with all their worldly possessions to Boston to start a new life. The number injured was 22, all of which were taken to Rhode Island Hospital. For weeks following the fatal crash, baggage, clothing, and human remains were found downriver at various mills!
As the engine crashed into the riverbank the tender was thrown on top of the engine, both the fireman and engineer were killed instantly. The boiler was pierced its entire length by a dislodged rail. Orrin Gardner the conductor survived the crash as he was collecting tickets towards the back of the train. After he gained his senses as to what happened and saw the devastation, he quickly realized that this might only be the beginning of the disaster. The mail train that had followed them out of Stonington station was only a short distance behind! He seized a signal lantern and ran back up the tracks to stop the oncoming mail train. The crash site was a downhill grade and surely the mail train would not have been able to stop in time even with the crash site visible in front of them. Gardner's efforts were successful. After the accident, the mail train was used to drag three of the cars back on to the rails. The "Shore Line" train also following behind saw the wrecked train's signal and stopped. It was then backed to Westerly where it picked up supplies and medical assistance and proceeded back to the site to lend help.
The Richmond Switch rail line was an important mainline and would need to be repaired immediately, otherwise all shoreline rail traffic would come to a halt. 100 men were assembled on site to pull the engine out of the embankment.
All the passenger cars were searched for survivors and casualties. The search was grim with many bodies dismembered and most burned beyond recognition. When the engine was finally recovered the engineer's body was discovered between the driving wheel and the engine, there was just enough remains to identify him. The fireman's remains were close by "crushed to a jelly".
Coffins began to arrive shortly after the crash and the bodies and remains were all transported to Providence for identification. A temporary railroad bridge was constructed at the crash site almost immediately so traffic could resume. The difficult process of investigation and identification of the victims would now be the priority.
The remains of the engineer of the train were finally identified as those of William D. Guiles of Providence. William's death was quickly realized by the brothers of St. Johns Lodge No. 1 Providence through new accounts. Although not a Rhode Island Mason he was a frequent visitor to St. Johns Lodge. There is some confusion as to where and when brother Guiles was born. After the accident, the New York Times of April 21 states that he was born in Sherburne, New York on May 14, 1819. If so, he was most certainly raised as a Master Mason in New York before coming to Providence. His gravestone is engraved with Kingston, RI as his place of birth on September 10, 1819. Regardless he died at the young age of 53 years.
Worshipful Master Edward B. Knight of St. Johns Lodge called a special communication for the funeral of brother Guile. This may have been a courtesy service requested by New York or a fraternal good will gesture by the brothers of St. Johns Lodge for a fallen brother. The service was held on April 22 only 3 days after the disaster. The officers and brothers of St. Johns Lodge escorted the body to Grace Church Cemetery where he was entombed with the usual Masonic Funeral Service.
Today Brother Guile's marble stone lies flat on the ground at the back of the cemetery. He led an admirable life, died in service to others and was taken far too early to the celestial lodge above!
Postscript: I have just discovered that the train conductor Orrin S. Gardiner who saved a second disaster from happening with the mail train, was in fact a member of St. Johns Lodge, lived in Providence and was raised on December 21, 1866. He was certainly a close friend of Brother Guile and may well have been the one who brought his death to the attention of the lodge in so timely a manner and may have also requested the Masonic Service.