Westport’s Horrific Trolley Crash: 100 Years Ago Yesterday

Exactly 100 years ago yesterday — on July 22, 1914 — Westport suffered one of its worst tragedies ever.

But until “06880” reader Mary Palmieri Gai pointed it out, I’d never heard of it.

On that day — a Wednesday — a horrendous, high-speed head-on collision between a 3-car trolley and a freight trolley killed 4 people, and seriously injured 21.

The front page of the Meriden Weekly Republican.

The front page of the Meriden Weekly Republican.

It took place at the intersection of State Street (now Post Road West) and King Street (now Riverside Avenue). The Meriden Weekly Republican called it “a deep curve on a down grade.”

Many of the trolley’s 279 passengers were children, returning to East Bridgeport from a church picnic at Norwalk’s Roton Point. The dead were between 11 and 21 years old.

The Republican said the accident occurred when the motorman of the passenger trolley “put on all speed while going downhill in an endeavor to reach a siding before the arrival of the trolley freight, which he knew was coming.”

According to the New York Times, both cars were “telescoped for four or five feet.” The 4 dead were all in the front seat. Westport medical examiner Dr. Frank Powers called it “a miracle” that not more were killed.

The Republican added, “the air was filled with splinters and dust….a panic ensued after the crash. The shrieks and groans of the injured could be heard for blocks.”

In the early 20th century, trolleys were an important part of Westport transportation. This is the terminal at Compo Beach.

In the early 20th century, trolleys were an important part of Westport transportation. This is the terminal at Compo Beach.

Injured passengers helped others. Mrs. Robert Wakelee — who suffered broken legs and broken thighs — threw 2 children from the floor to the ground outside. Moments later, debris from the roof landed where the youngsters had lain.

Howard Taylor, who lived nearby, lifted a dozen people from the wreckage.

Every doctor in the area was summoned. Ambulances and private cars sped to Norwalk Hospital.

Mary Palmieri Gai adds one last piece of news: Among the injured — suffering from a broken nose and shock — was Lillian Abbott of Providence, Rhode Island.

Just 2 years earlier, she had survived the sinking of Titanic.

17 responses to “Westport’s Horrific Trolley Crash: 100 Years Ago Yesterday

    • The Newport (RI) Daily News of July 23, 1914 mentioned Lillian Abbott as a Titanic survivor. Unfortunately I can’t get that link to work — Mary Palmieri Gai has it. All lists of Titanic survivors note that they are “incomplete.” Also, perhaps the Newport paper misidentified Rhoda as “Lillian.”

  1. The crash actually occurred at Nash’s Curve – which is the curve at Post Road West and North Kings Highway. Near Birchwood CC there was a passing track and switch, but at the accident site it was single tracked. For whatever reason a signal either did not work or was ignored so that both cars were on the same track headed towards each other, and they could not see one another due to the curve in the road until they were 100 yards or so apart.

    For many years the switch at Birchwood was still visible in the pavement.

    My great-grandfather, Everett “Shorty” Call, was a Connecticut Company motorman until they closed down the car barn in Westport and transferred employees to Norwalk and Bridgeport.

  2. Here’s a question for the powers that be.. what happens to old police records as regards to disasters? Police photos would be very valuable historically. I am not talking recent history.. but maybe 80 or 100 years or more. Something tells me there are a lot of very interesting Westport photographs out there somewhere. There’s got to be photos of this disaster around somewhere. Right?

    • Well, the PD was organized in 1924 (Happy 90th, WPD!), so there are no photos or reports for this on file.

      • What was there before the WPD?

        • Sorry, Mary, did not see this. Way back when Westport had a combination of deputy sheriff’s and elected constables as well as the Connecticut State Police, who usually handled arrests.

          Most, if not all of these serious disasters/accidents resulting in deaths were investigated by the Fairfield County Coroner’s Office. There were several fatal trolley accidents in town as well as the wreck in Saugatuck which were the subject of inquests by that office. Not sure who would hold those records.

  3. Jack Whittle

    Well, there was a much larger (in terms of lives lost – at least 12) disaster two years earlier in 1912 when a a passenger train, which was running 50 mph in a 15 mph area located just west of the Saugatuck station (the train was running late and trying to make up time) wrecked, with many of the victims burned to death. That disaster, known as the wreck of the Springfield Express, has pictures which show up on ebay from time to time. Full story, and a picture: http://www3.gendisasters.com/connecticut/7207/westport-saugatuck-ct-train-wreck-oct-1912

    Seems this period was a time of large disasters in Westport

  4. Kathie Bennewitz

    Speaking of train crashes in Westport there was also another one later on Sept 27, 1935. The NY Times reported on it and I found a great drawing of the engine being lifted up from the Saugatuck by Robert Lambdin at the WHS (Dan I’ll email it to you)
    | September 27, 1935
    NEW HAVEN ROAD TIED UP BY WRECK; Freight Crashes Into Work Train on Bridge at Westport and Cars Burst Into Flames.

    Also found photos of the 1912 crash on the NYT–incredible wreckage and catastrophe. http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=9D06E5DE133CE633A25757C0A9669D946396D6CF

  5. The biggest train wreck was in 1853..thereabouts… in Saugatuck. That story was in the newspapers for weeks. One of my favorite old movies, “Life with Father” has a line in it after the main character “Clarence Day” reads the newspaper and slams it on the table, and says.. “Confound it, another wreck on the New Haven”. That period movie takes place in the late 1800s in NYC. So apparently, there were more than a few wrecks on “The New Haven”

  6. Thank you for all that information.
    I have seen photographs in the Historical Society’s achieves of the
    wreck….but never knew the details.