Sunday, October 13, 2013

The 1887 West Hartford Bridge Disaster

The Hartford Wreck

‘Twas the Montreal Express
It was speeding at its best.
Near Hartford Bridge it struck
a broken rail.
When down with a fearful crash
To the river it was dashed.
And few survived to tell the horrid tale.

                                                --Joyce Cheney
(We Tell Our Story: Vermont Songwriters and Their Stories)

This story is one of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In 1887 the worst train disaster in Vermont’s history occurred. It was a bitterly cold morning in February of 1887 when the rear sleeper car from the Central Vermont Railroad’s Montreal Express hit a broken rail and plunged forty-two feet off the West Hartford Bridge taking with it three other coaches to the icy waters of the White River below. A coupling broke which saved the rest of the train from tumbling off the track.

Cast iron “Baker” stoves stoked with coal heated these wooden cars and whale oil kerosene lamps illuminated them. As a result when these coaches struck the ice below they were immediately consumed in flames. The area around this bridge has been haunted by one young ghost ever since.

The West Hartford Bridge was a wooden upside down covered bridge which means the railroad bed sat on top of an enclosed structure as opposed to running through it.

“On top of its wooden trusses was a layer of sheet iron placed between the rails and ties and the supporting structure, an apron to deflect any sparks from the locomotive’s belching smokestack. Ironically, what had been designed to protect the bridge from fire most likely contributed to its ultimate demise.”

The cause of the accident was never specifically determined. Train walkers the day before the accident, that occurred at 2:20 a.m. in the morning had found no apparent defeats along the track. But after the accident 2 to 3 breaks in the rails were discovered. It was speculated that the combination of the speed the train was traveling * plus the low temperature’s effect on the alloy and the curve of the rails might have caused them to fracture. After this accident the U.S. Congress passed the Railroad Appliance Act, which established national safety standards for railroads.

Many of the estimated 37 people who died were burned or trapped within these cars wreckage. Some were swept away by the river’s ice cold swift currents. People from the forward cars above rushed to help. Charles H. Pierce the train engineer shoveled snow onto one car in an attempt to douse the flames but finding this futile he instead smashed windows and managed to save 7 lives.

But the flames from these burning cars, two of them sleeper coaches, soon threatened the bridge above. Pierce then went to move the remaining cars on the bridge forward away from the fire. The West Hartford Bridge made out of wood was almost completely destroyed by these flames. The rescue efforts were also hampered by the winter temperature, which dropped to 20 below zero.

Many passengers onboard were in a celebratory mood for they were traveling from Boston to Montreal to attend a weeklong Carnival. It is still not known actually how many people died but it is estimated that 37 people perished and another 50 escaped with injuries or unharmed. Many of the deceased, barely dressed were identified by bits and remnant clothing or by personal gear. Others were not identifiable.

“One of the most heart rending remains was that of a parent and child fused together in a final poignant embrace, burned beyond recognition.”

Among the passengers were a father and son, David and Joseph Maigret ** traveling from Holyoke to their home in Shawinigan, Quebec. Tragically, being in one of the coaches that plunged off the bridge Joseph’s father was pinned down by the wreckage. Unable to get out he gave his personal belongings, which included a watch and pocketbook to his young son. Joseph bade a tearful goodbye and then watched helplessly as the creeping wall of flames reached his father.

Very quickly after this disaster the West Hartford Bridge was rebuilt now constructed out of steel. But a haunting near the bridge in the years since has kept this accident fresh in many minds. The smell of something burning has been noticed under this bridge for years, without cause. Witnesses often report aromas as a first sign of a haunting because they are often out of place in the area they are noticed.

But by far the most compelling evidence that this area is haunted is that witnesses have seen an apparition of a young boy. Many of these witnesses have been driving across the West Hartford Bridge when they get a fleeting glimpse of this ghost. Often they don’t realize he is a ghost until afterwards.

This area is used for recreation today. In the warmer months many people swim in the White River near the bridge so it is a common sight to see people wearing swimwear. But what is unusual is many people report seeing a young boy who is believed to be Joseph Maigret wearing old-fashioned clothes--including white socks and knickers. ***

His ghost is seen sometimes walking four feet above the White River. According to one man, Steven Marshall who has investigated this haunting this makes sense because at the time of the accident the ice would have raised the river to the level this boy is seen walking along. Many feel that even though he survived the accident his spirit returns to the place where he last saw his father alive.

* The engineer slowed the train to a safe speed, 12 miles an hour as it approached the bridge.

** In some versions of this haunting the boy and his father’s name has been changed to McCabe. But their surname was Maigret. Some spellings have it as Meigret or Maiquete--they were French Canadian from the Province of Quebec.

*** Knickers are loose fitting trousers gathered at the knee. Young boys during the this period wore these short pants until they became older and were allowed then to wear long pants.

The following is a video that highlights Steven Marshall talking about this haunting.

No comments: