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Stories Behind a State Marker

Saturday, June 13, 2015
A video on the blog Seeks Ghosts shows a young boy dressed in knickers, a rather ashen looking 19th century lad of 8 years old or so, a film representation of an apparition sometimes seen walking near the West Hartford Railroad bridge where it crosses the White River.

As the story goes, the boy is the spirit of Joe Maigret, the son of Dieudonne Maigret, a Quebec notary who died, pinned under the rubble of the Boston-Montreal Night Express and burned to death by the fire raging through the ill-fated train cars after they fell from the bridge onto the ice covering the river in the early morning hours of Feb. 5, 1887. The young Joe is purported to be searching for his father, the blog post says.

The accident, one of the worst in Vermont railroading history , left at least 30 dead and 37 injured. It is commemorated by a state marker on Route 14 near the present bridge just north of Hartford Village and recounted in a booklet compiled by the Hartford Historical Society.

Although there is a great deal known about the accident — taken from the accounts of survivors or drawn from newspaper articles and an official report from the state investigation — there is still conflicting information about the exact number of casualties or even an accurate passenger count. The facts are made murky by the horrific fire that burned the dead beyond recognition and the swift river currents that may have swept some of the hapless victims downstream under the ice, never to be recovered.

For example, the state sign says 25 passengers and five crew members died. Th ose are the numbers used by the Vermont Railroad Commission investigation that took place days after the accident. That commission also said there were 37 injured and a total of 79 passengers and 12 trainmen were on board. However, other accounts that were compiled after most of the bodies were recovered and identified had much higher numbers. The passenger list showed 77 passengers and the 12 crew were on board, the 2005 Hartford Historical Society book says, noting that 35 died and 45 were injured.

Another well-documented 2013 report by J.A. Ferguson published by the Vermont Historical Society says there were 115 people on the train and that 37 died, 50 were injured and 22 passengers and 6 crew escaped.

Part of the confusion might be that t he train, officially known as Central Vermont Railroad’s No. 50, was a combination of cars that had arrived in White River Junction, originating from Boston and New York. It included two sleeper cars on the rear, preceded by two day coaches coupled behind a combined smoker lounge and mail car, a baggage car, a coal car and the engine, the Ferguson report says.

The Night Express left White River at 2:10 that Saturday morning, an hour and a half behind schedule, delayed by the late-arriving Boston and New York trains. No. 50 was carrying about 90 passengers and crew, travelers who ranged from big city dwellers to Upper Valley residents and Dartmouth College students, many of them heading to the winter carnival in Montreal, others on their way home, unable to get an earlier train.

Those in the sleeper cars, which bore the names Pilgrim and St. Albans , had bedded down for the night, passengers in the coaches were dozing fitfully on the lightly padded wooden seats. Three passengers were sitting up in the smoking car.

Boston porters A. J. Hammer and J.H. Jones had done their jobs well, making sure the coal stoves were stoked full to keep all aboard comfortably warm on the minus 18-degree night and the whale oil lamps burning to provide a lighted way to the washrooms.

Conductor Smith Sturtevant, of St. Albans, Vt., was passing through the train, taking tickets from passengers who had just boarded in White River Junction. The train was 510 feet from the south end of the bridge, about 5 minutes into the trip, when the rear sleeper car hit a broken rail and slipped a wheel onto the ties, according to report of the Vermont Railroad Commission report.

Even though he was behind schedule, Engineer Charles W. Pierce, 38, of White River Junction, who had 14 years experience at the helm, had slowed the train to about 12 miles an hour as he approached the curve before the 650-foot bridge, something he was accustomed to doing.

As he neared the front of the lead coach and just as the engine approached the bridge, conductor Sturtevant felt a bump, which he recognized as trouble and immediately rang the emergency bell alerting the engine crew. Brakeman George Parker rushed out of the front cars in response to the signal to apply the brakes. He saw the rear sleeper car, Pilgrim, was in trouble, off the track and bumping along the road bed. He jumped from the train, sliding down the steep river bank in the deep snow south of the bridge.

When the Pilgrim car reached the bridge, “the rear end swung to the right side of the track to the deck of the bridge, and thence to the frozen river below, a distance of 43 feet, drawing with it the other sleeper car and the two coaches in front, all of which were crushed in the wreck upon the ice. The coupling between the Boston coach and the combination mail and smoker car broke, or unclasped, so the rest of the train was saved,” the investigation report says.

Within 15 minutes of the crash, all of the ill-fated cars were fully engulfed in flames that reached beyond the top of the bridge, setting it on fire and sending it crashing down alongside the burning cars.

As the Pilgrim sleeper car neared the bridge, Mrs. W.B. Bryden, of Boston, who had turned in for the night about 9 in a lower berth on the left-hand side, was awakened by the strange motion.

“I at once knew we were off the track,” Bryden told a newspaper reporter.

“I attempted to raise the curtain with my left hand. At that moment, the car plunged, and instantly, I felt myself closed upon by mattresses, bed clothing and I know not what. In a second, I realized that the train had fallen from some height.”

Bryden was rescued moments before the fire reached her, after she cut off her nightclothes to free herself. Her back was numb, and she was laid on the ice and covered with a blanket.

“Then, I witnessed the most horrible scene of my life. The train could be scarcely recognized. A few men were pulling things out of the cars and getting out people. The train was already on fire. Each car was set on fire by its stove, and the flames leaping up soon set the bridge crackling. The sparks blew mostly to the sky, and the cinders fell on the frozen creek like rain. … I could hear the shouts and the cries piercing the night.

“One voice still rings in my ears. It was that of a woman. She said, ‘Won’t some one let me out?’ The groans of the dying, the fatally injured and those pinioned in the wreck, upon whom the flames leaped devouringly, filled the air,” Bryden said.

Engineer Pierce got the engine and the surviving cars to the other side of the bridge and parked them. He, the remaining crew members and three passengers with axes and shovels in hand, ran down the steep embankment to the ice-covered river, quickly trying to extricate as many survivors as possible. They broke windows and cut holes in the roof to give the passengers an exit, and are credited with saving many lives.

Parker, the brakeman who jumped just before the bridge, borrowed a team of horses from a nearby farm and rushed back to White River Junction to sound the alarm. Within an hour, a train filled with rescue workers, accompanied by a team of doctors, returned to the scene, but by that time nothing could be down to save those still trapped in the cars. They perished in the flames.

The rescued, which included the well-loved conductor Sturtevant, were taken to the nearby farmhouse of Oscar Paine. Sturtevant was gravely injured, burned from head to foot, but conscious. He bid goodbye to his wife, who had arrived from St. Albans Saturday evening and friends before he died on Sunday afternoon. He had started his career with the railroad after returning from fighting in the Civil War. His remains were returned to his home by a special train. He had seven children.

Among the survivors was Henry W. Tewksbury, of West Randolph, an attorney, popular lecturer and expert on the Battle of Gettysburg. He was returning from giving a talk in Windsor and couldn’t find a hotel room for the night in White River Junction, so he decided to take the short train ride home. He recalled seeing an elderly couple seated several rows ahead of him. They embraced and kissed before the flames engulfed them. Tewksbury’s legs and arm were broken in the effort to extract him from the front day coach where he was riding. He suffered from his injuries the rest of his life.

After a night of partying, Dartmouth College student and baseball pitcher Edward F. Dillon, 19, had gotten on the train with his roommate, Albin Veazey, on a whim. Dillon, who was the son of a wealthy woolen manufacturer in Springfield, Vt., died in the crash. Veazy escaped with minor injuries.

Fred W. Tuttle, of Tunbridge, grandfather of Fred H. Tuttle, made famous by filmmaker John O’Brien, was returning from Windsor where he had been on business. He escaped with slight injuries.

Central Vermont Railroad repaired the broken rails within days, much to the chagrin of the state railroad commission, and had rebuilt the bridge with steel by the end of the year. But the lawsuits from the crash plagued the railroad company for years, and it eventually went bankrupt.

Central Vermont was roundly criticized for still using coal stoves and oil lamps on the train instead of electric lights and steam heat from the engine. The new technologies, which would have saved lives, had been used by other lines for at least six years. As a result of the crash, the stoves and lamps were eventually replaced on all trains.

The young boy Joe Maigret didn’t die in the crash, the Hartford Historical Society book says.

He was only slightly injured. He was traveling with his father back to their home in Shawinigan, Quebec, when the crash occurred. Joe was able to crawl out a broken window, then he tried to pull out his father, whose legs were stuck.

“I pulled and worked for 10 minutes. Then it began to get hot … and he told me to go away. He got out his pocket book and gave it to me. ‘Tell your mother good bye,’ he said, and then I had to go away.”

Warren Johnston can be reached at or at 603-727-3216.

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