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Athol Bridge Wreck, 1870

On Thursday June 16, 1870, a terrible railroad accident occurred between Athol and Royalston, Massachusetts on the bridge over Miller's River. A supervisor had mistaken the time, and a small hand car was placed in the path of an onrushing train from Boston.

The engine struck the hand car, wedging an iron bar into the wooden ties of the bridge deck, which derailed the engine and immediately launched three cars into the river below. Four people tragically lost their lives as a result of the accident, with twenty seriously wounded. The June 23, 1870 edition of the New Hampshire Sentinel described the wreck:

"The morning train from Boston over the Vermont and Massachusetts railroad on Thursday, of last week, met with a most unfortunate accident about half past 10 o'clock at the 'Long Bridge,' between Royalston and Athol, being almost completely wrecked by a collision with a hand car.

It seems that Mr. Morse, the section master, mistaking the hour indicated by his watch, and thinking that he had ample time to reach Royalston before the train from Boston arrived there, started with one man on a hand car in that direction. A sharp curve in the road on the Royalston side of Miller's river prevented him from seeing the train (which was approaching at full speed) until he entered the bridge at one end, the train entering the other end about the same time.

The engineer of the train had just gone to the front end of the engine, leaving his engine in charge of the fireman, who, seeing the hand car, whistled 'down brakes,' but it was too late. The section men jumped from the hand car and caught [themselves] in the braces of the bridge, just as the engine struck the car, completely demolishing it. Instantly, an iron bar on the hand car caught under the engine, throwing it from the track. The wheels of the engine displaced the timbers of the bridge and the baggage car, when it came to the weakened spot, fell through into the river below. The first passenger car followed, in such a way that its front end shot under the rear end of the baggage car. The second passenger car fell endwise, remaining in a nearly perpendicular position as its wrecked condition would allow. The last car did not go down, the forward truck only falling through the bridge.

After the cars had gone down, the engine was pulled backward, the tender falling first, then the engine going down leaving the forward end of the frame caught in the bridge. The engineer, being on the front of his engine, did not fall into the river but received cuts on his lip and right knee in the collision. He immediately went into the river, and with assistance he could get, commenced throwing water on the heated portions of the engine, continuing till all danger from fire was passed. But for his promptness and courage, the bridge would have taken fire and the calamity would have been aggravated in a fearful degree.

THE KILLED AND WOUNDED. Most of the passengers in the last car escaped with slight scratches and bruises, but those in the other cars were mangled in a horrible manner. Four persons were fatally injured, the list being as follows: Mrs. Brewer of Royalston, an aged lady who died shortly after being taken to the Methodist church in Athol; Johnson, a man who sold popped corn on the train, killed instantly; Connor, a laborer going from Lowell to the Hoosac tunnel, who was dead when taken from the wreck; and Mrs. Jonas Turner of Royalston, who suffered a compound fracture of the leg near the ankle, and she was also injured on the head and internally. She survived the accident but a few hours.

The seriously wounded numbered about twenty."

It is amazing that more people were not killed. The bridge could have caught fire from the damaged engine, and then set ablaze the splintered remains of the wooden coaches. There have been several horrific bridge wrecks in New England history, including the Vermont Central Wreck and the Bussey Bridge Disaster.

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