December 4: Four Trains, Two Tracks –– The Great East Thompson Train Wreck


Today in 1891, one of the largest train disasters in American history — and the only one to involve four different trains — occurred outside of the small town of East Thompson. Located in the extreme northeast corner of the state, nestled right against the Massachusetts and Rhode Island borders, the tracks in East Thompson were heavily traveled in the late 19th century. They were part of a time-saving diagonal “shortcut” through Connecticut often taken by trains traveling between Boston and New York City.

In the ominously foggy morning hours of December 4, two passenger trains and two freight trains were scheduled to pass through the tracks in East Thompson within 10 minutes of each other — not an especially unusual occurrence. That morning, however, a local railway dispatcher in the nearby town of Putnam made the decision to guide a heavy eastbound freight train onto the tracks normally reserved for westbound trains. He did so to make room for a speedier Eastern States Express passenger train traveling behind it. Unfortunately, the dispatcher in Putnam completely forgot about the second freight train — which was traveling westbound and scheduled to pass through at the same time — and he failed to notify East Thompson’s dispatcher that he had shifted the eastbound freight train onto the westbound track.

Photograph of the East Thompson train wreck, December 4, 1891. (Archives & Special Collections, University of Connecticut Libraries)

At 6:40 am, the two heavy freight trains hit each other in a violent, head-on collision that instantly destroyed both engines and derailed several cars — some of which jackknifed over both the eastbound and westbound tracks. Minutes later, the Eastern States Express roared around the corner at full speed and struck one of the jackknifed cars laying across the eastbound tracks, causing its engine to derail and crash into a nearby telegraph pole, killing the engineer and fireman inside. With so much chaos occurring over the span of only a few minutes, local railwaymen didn’t have time to send a message to the crew of the second incoming passenger train, which crashed into the wreckage of the Eastern States Express at 6:45 am, setting itself ablaze.

Miraculously, the engineer and fireman were the only two fatalities amidst all of the wreckage. The incident, which became known as the Great East Thompson Train Wreck, did, however, injure hundreds of crewmen and passengers and rendered the vital rail line completely inoperative. The damage to the rails was so extensive that instead of pouring countless time and dollars into repairing them, the rail lines’ owners decided to reroute traffic around East Thompson altogether. After a steep decline in rail traffic, the East Thompson station was razed in the early 20th century. The site of the rail tracks that once ran through the town has since been converted into the multi-use, linear Air Line State Park. There, visitors can find a commemorative plaque in memory of one of the worst rail disasters in American history, which took place today in Connecticut history.

Further Reading

The Day Four Trains Collided in East Thompson,”

Marlene Clark, “December 4th Will Mark Anniversary of Train Wreck,Hartford Courant