Norwalk rail accident

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Norwalk rail accident
Originally entitled 'The Catastrophe' the illustration depicts the accident site
Originally entitled 'The Catastrophe' the illustration depicts the accident site
Date May 6, 1853
Location Norwalk, Connecticut
Country United States
Rail line New York and New Haven Railroad
Type of incident Draw (swing) bridge open
Cause Signal passed at danger
Trains 1
Passengers 200
Deaths 48
Injuries 30

The Norwalk rail accident occurred on May 6, 1853, in Norwalk, Connecticut and was the first major U.S. railroad bridge disaster; 48 were killed when a train travelling at 50 mph plunged into the Norwalk Harbor off of an open draw (swing) bridge.[1]

The accident occurred on the New York and New Haven Railroad where it crosses a small inlet of Long Island Sound via a swing bridge. The approach from New York is around a sharp curve, the signal that the bridge is passable by trains was by way of a red ball mounted upon a tall pole.

At 08:00 that morning the Boston express left New York with 200 passengers driven by a substitute driver for whom this was the third transit of the route. The train comprised two baggage and five passenger cars. On approaching the bridge he neglected to check the signal and only became aware that the bridge was open when within 400 feet of it. The bridge had been opened for the passage of the steamship Pacific which had just passed through. The driver applied the brakes and reversed the engine but was unable to stop in time. He and the fireman leapt clear before the bridge and escaped serious injury. The engine itself flew across the 60 foot gap, striking the opposite abutment some 8 feet below the level of the track and sinking into 12 feet of water. The baggage cars came to rest atop the locomotive; the front of the first passenger car was crushed against the baggage cars and then submerged as the second passenger car came to rest on top of it. The third passenger car broke in two; the front half hanging down over the edge of the abutment; the rear remaining on the track. Most of the 48 dead and 30 injured were in the first passenger car. A further 8 people were reported missing.

Many doctors were travelling on the train, returning from the Sixth Annual Meeting of the American Medical Association in New York; seven of them were killed. Amongst the unhurt was Dr. Gurdon Wadsworth Russell who wrote an account of the accident for the Hartford Courant in which he says that the dead "presented all the symptoms of asphyxia from drowning, and were probably drowned at once, being confined and pressed by broken cars. Oh, what a melancholy scene that!"

As a result of the public panic and indignation caused by the accident the Connecticut Legislature enforced a law compelling every train in the state to come to a dead halt before crossing any opening bridge. The engineer was charged with gross negligence and held primarily responsible for the disaster.

A similar accident occurred eleven years later in Canada with even greater loss of life, See St-Hilaire train disaster.


  1. ^ Haine, Edgar A. (1994). "The first of many railroad bridge disasters: South Norwalk, Conn–May 1853–56 dead". Railroad Wrecks. p. 34 – via Google Books. 

Coordinates: 41°6′02″N 73°24′55″W / 41.10056°N 73.41528°W / 41.10056; -73.41528