March 2: A Great and Deadly Accident Finds a City Unprepared


Around 2:00pm on March 2, 1854, a deafening blast rocked the Dutch Point neighborhood of Hartford following the explosion of a massive steam boiler at the Fales & Gray Car Works factory. The force of the explosion blew out the eight-inch-thick brick walls encasing the factory’s boiler room, causing the roof to cave in and exposing nearly a third of the company’s 300 workers to injuries from flying shrapnel or falling rubble. It was the worst industrial accident in the rapidly-expanding city’s history.

A later report described a macabre scene as people rushed toward the wreckage that marked the site where the main factory building had stood just moments before:

“To paint the agony of the [spectators], whose relatives were sufferers, would be impossible. …In many instances, they failed to recognize their own relatives, so blackened, and distorted, and mutilated were the bodies, by the dirt, bruises, and fearful scalds. Some were so badly scalded, that on touching them the skin peeled off in the hand.”

This photograph shows the aftermath of the March 2, 1854 boiler explosion at the Fales & Gray Car Works in Hartford. (Connecticut Historical Society)

Nine workers, including the boiler engineer, died instantly in the explosion, with twelve more men dying from their injuries over the next few days. An estimated fifty additional workers suffered serious injuries. Despite the willingness of residents to rush toward the scene and help, the city of Hartford found itself utterly unprepared to deal with a disaster of this magnitude. Like most other cities in antebellum America, Hartford lacked a public hospital or other facility to coordinate medical care among the city’s doctors and nurses. In 1854, only New Haven had such a place. The city had founded its own public hospital in 1826 (the first in Connecticut and only the fourth in the country at the time), largely for the educational benefit of students attending the Medical Institution of Yale College, which was established in 1810.

This broadside was circulated through Hartford the day after the deadly boiler explosion at the Fales & Gray factory. (Connecticut Historical Society)

The horrific accident of March 2, 1854 convinced Hartford residents that the justification for a public hospital went far beyond meeting the needs of medical students. The day after the Fales & Gray boiler explosion, a broadside was circulated around the city calling for a meeting to provide relief to accident victims and their families — and to begin a long-overdue conversation about establishing a hospital in Hartford.

Exactly two months after the fatal disaster, the citizens of Hartford voted to establish a public hospital, and by May, the state of Connecticut had granted a charter for the establishment of Hartford Hospital, the first institution of its kind in the greater Hartford region. Hartford Hospital opened its doors in 1859 and remains one of the area’s major hospitals over 150 years later. An iconic institution and enduring mission of mercy rose from the ashes of Hartford’s worst industrial accident, today in Connecticut history.

Further Reading

Emma Demar & Elizabeth Normen, “Fales & Gray Explosion Underscores Need for a Hartford Hospital,Connecticut Explored

Matthew Sturdevant, “How A Deadly Factory Explosion In 1854 Fueled The Creation Of City’s First Hospital,Hartford Courant

Mary Mahoney, “1854: Boiling Over,” Scholars Collaborative