January 15: They Got On the Wrong Train


Today in 1878, right after hearing the famed evangelist Dwight Moody preach that “repentance is grabbing your bag and coat and getting out of the wrong train and onto the right one,” a group of revival-attending passengers in Hartford boarded a specially ordered train that took them to one of Connecticut’s deadliest train disasters. When an old wooden trestle bridge near the village of Tariffville gave way under the weight of two steam engines, several rail cars fell into the icy waters of the Farmington River below, killing over a dozen people.

The Connecticut Western Railroad train had departed Hartford shortly after 9:00pm and was passing through the community of Tariffville, in the northeast corner of the town of Simsbury, an hour later. As the train’s two locomotives passed over the wooden trestle bridge carrying the rail line over the Farmington, passengers suddenly heard a “sickening groan” as the bridge’s metal joints failed, sending both locomotives and three of the eight passenger cars hurtling into the river below. One engine flipped upside down and became embedded several feet into the muddy riverbank under the force of its own weight. Of the several passenger coaches that derailed, one crashed into the roof of the second, gashing a hole through the roof and sending large wooden beams and showers of splinters flying in all directions. Yet another passenger car crashed through the five-inch-thick ice of the river and was almost completely submerged.

The Tariffville Train Wreck attracted crowds of onlookers and photographers, including N. R. Worden, who took this photograph of the scene. (Connecticut Historical Society)

Soon after the wreck occurred, one quick-thinking railroad employee ran to the nearby Tariffville station and telegraphed for help, while other able-bodied passengers ran into nearby Tariffville proper to rouse townspeople from their beds and bring aid to the scene. A relief train carrying doctors and medical supplies arrived from Hartford an hour later. Rescue efforts continued well into the next morning, with rescuers forced to make improvised sleds to maneuver amid the ice and snow that surrounded the terrible scene. In all, 13 people lost their lives in the Tariffville train wreck of 1878, and over 70 more passengers were seriously injured. An official inquiry as to the cause of the accident was unable to determine whether the bridge failure happened because of the weight of the two heavy steam locomotives, or because of poor bridge maintenance by the Connecticut Western Rail Road. It was likely a combination of both factors that contributed to one of the worst train disasters the state ever witnessed, today in Connecticut history.

Further Reading

Kim Sheridan, “The Tariffville Disaster,” connecticuthistory.org

Richard C. Malley, “Tragedy at Tariffville: The Railroad Wreck of 1878,” WNPR

Molly Waterman, “The Tariffville Train Wreck,” Simsbury Community TV (Also viewable on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c0XkUkJXtYo)