White River Junction, VT Woodstock Bridge Train Wreck, Feb 1887


Part of a Train Falls Sixty Feet From a Bridge.

The Cars Catch Fire, and Many Persons Burned Alive.

The place known as Woodstock Bridge, where the Vermont Central Railroad crosses the White River in Vermont, was the scene Saturday morning of a disaster in which about thirty-five persons lost their lives and fully thirty other persons were injured more or less severely. A rail, broken, it is thought, by the intense cold, caused two passenger coaches and two sleeping cars of the Montreal express train to leave the rails at the approach to the bridge. The coupling with the farward[sic] part of the train broke. The last four cars fell upon the ice which covered the river at the bottom of a rocky gorge sixty feet in depth. The bridge, which was of wood, gave way and its timbers were burned by the flames which destroyed the cars. Both the passenger coaches were crowded and there were twenty-two persons in one of the sleeping cars and nine in the other. It is estimated that the number of lives endangered in the accident was at least eighty. Of these not more than ten escaped unhurt. Many of the passengers were on the way to Montreal to enjoy the carnival. Nearly all those who lost their lives were burned to death. By Saturday night thirty-five bodies in all had been taken out of the wreck. Only eight of this number were in any manner recognizable. Details of the calamity are as follows:
The ill-fated train consisted of two sections, one from Boston comprising the Pullman sleeper Puritan, an ordinary passenger coach, a mail and a baggage car, and the other section from Springfield, Mass., including the Pullman sleeper, St. Albans and a common passenger car. Both parts were united at White River and started for Montreal via the Central Vermont or Grand Trunk line. The train was nearly an hour late.
West Hartford, the scene of the awful calamity, is a small hamlet on the White River. The population consists of farmers, whose homes are quite widely scattered. At this point the Central Vermont Railroad crosses the river obliquely. The bridge, a wooden one _____ feet in length, is the longest of its character in the country. It crosses the river at the height of sixty feet. The river was frozen solidly, ice to the thickness of several inches having formed on it. The cold was intense, the thermometer registering about twelve degrees below zero.
At the time the accident happened, the train was running about forty miles an hour. The locomotive had nearly passed the bridge when the attention of the engineer was suddenly attracted by something unusual, and in looking, back the night being a fine moonlight one, he saw the last four cars go over the end of the bridge and land on the frozen river in the gorge below. The baggage and mail cars crossed the bridge in safety. As soon as possible the train was stopped, and the railroad employees and a few passengers in the smoking compartment of the mail car went to the relief of those in the wreck. The descent of the steep embankment was speedily made, and when they arrived where they expected to find the detached portion of the train they discovered the four cars bottom up on the ice. Flames immediately burst forth.
The scene at the bridge was so awful that it beggars description. Mingled with the uproar of the fire were the cries of the imprisoned passengers crying, “Help! Help! Help!” The few passengers who were in the “smoker” and the employees of the railroad and the mail service were struck dumb at the terrible sight before them. The most collected men rendered what little service was possible, but the heat of the fast burning cars drove them away before much could be accomplished. Of all the passengers in the wrecked cars, but five escaped unhurt, but they were so paralyzed with fear and the shock to their nervous system that they could render but trifling assistance to their more unfortunate companions. The half dozen occupants of the smoking room of the mail car saw, as they peered over the edge of the bridge a terrible sight, but the cries and moans of the wounded and dying that filled the air was the most appalling feature of the accident. When they reached the wreck they found the cars so badly shattered that it was impossible to gain access to them by either the windows or doors, and to add to the difficulty of rescue, the cars were overturned, and were partially submerged in the broken ice and water.
The shrieks of the wounded and dying were agonizing in the extreme and intermingled with their cries of pain were the calls for assistance of those who were alive, but unable to extricate themselves. Then came the fire to add to the horrors of the situation. Many were probably killed by the terrible fall, but a large number who were only slightly injured were so confined in the wreck that they could not be rescued and were burned alive. As the flames spread the confusion increased and the shrieks of the victims who saw torturing death by fire approaching were as agonizing as any that ever fell upon human ear. The rescuing party had nothing but their hands to work with, and although they worked with almost superhuman efforts, and rescued many, the number that perished in the flames was very large.

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