Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Baker Bridge Train Wreck of 1905 Lincoln MA

Imagine an algebra problem with potentially fatal consequences: a train leaves the station going 35 mph, with stops. Thirty minutes later an express train departs on the same track going 35 mph, no stops. Will the first train reach an exit at mile 25 before the second train catches up?
On Sunday evening, November 26, 1905, the answer was "No."

Although trains had been around for more than fifty years, train safety was still an evolving process. At the time of this accident some systems had electric-powered signals - semaphore arms by day and lights by night - to signify that another train was ahead. Additionally, if operators on a leading train thought there was a chance a following train might catch up, a flagman on the rear car (not always a caboose) would periodically throw red 'fusees' (flares) off the back. These were designed to burn for about ten minutes. And that's it for preventing rear-end collisions. No real-time train tracking, no radio communications between trains, and no collision avoidance automated braking.

The players: Boston & Maine Railroad ran local-stop passenger trains between Boston and Marlborough, using the main line to south Acton, where the trains would switch to tracks serving Maynard, Stow, Hudson and Marlborough. The night of the accident, the train, comprised of an engine, a tender and four coaches, left Union Station (same site as current North Station) at 7:16 p.m., making stops all along the way. Scores of people were returning to Maynard after Sunday excursions in Boston. Most were on the last car, as it was designated to be left behind at Maynard before the rest of the train continued onward. Behind it, the overnight Montreal Express - two engines, two milk cars, two baggage cars, a mail car, a Pullman car, a smoker and two coaches - left Union Station at 7:45 p.m.

The local was running late and the operators were aware of what was chasing them from behind. At the evidentiary hearing the flagman reported he had dropped fusees east of the Lincoln station, west of the Lincoln station, and again a goodly distance before the Baker Bridge station in western Lincoln.

According to the report from the Board of Railroad Commissioners, Horace  Lyon, the engineer of the lead engine of the express stated that he had seen the fusees, and had cut back power, but at most only lightly applied brakes. The night was in general clear, but there may have been some obscuring night fog in Lincoln, near the Sudbury River. Regardless, Lyon testified that he did not see the rear lights of the stopped train until within 100 yards, and even with emergency brakes, could not stop in time.

Burned railroad car from the Baker Bridge Station, Lincoln, MA
train wreck of Nov 26, 1905 (courtesy Maynard Historical Society)
The conclusion was operator error on the part of Mr. Lyons. There was discussion about him doing a night shift when he had just completed a day shift, but the major fault was identified as lack of experience. Lyons had only recently been promoted from fireman. Prior to the night of the accident his experience was a few weeks in the switching yard, a week driving freight trains, and this only his second day in charge of a passenger train. Although he had experience as a fireman on the Montreal Express, he may not have been aware that the local had an optional stop at Baker Bridge, 1.5 miles after the Lincoln Station stop. Lyons was only slightly injured in the accident, and fled the scene immediately after the accident, and when located later, was described as being in a state of mental collapse.  

Newspaper reports of the time reported the accident as occurring at 8:15 p.m., and resulting in 17 dead and 25-30 seriously injured. Two of the dead were fireman on the Montreal-bound engines. The others were passengers on the rear two cars of the local, either killed in the accident or from the resulting fire, set by the lead engine of the express. The death toll would have been higher except for railroad employees and passengers from both trains braving the smoke and fire and risk of a boiler explosion to extract the trapped and wounded.   

The Maynard dead, and their ages:
  William J. Barris 29
  Irving H. Barris 3
  Mary Campbell 27
  Andrew Carlson 28
  Josephine Carlson 22
  Thomas Crowley 56
  George Czujko 49
  Hannah Desmond 40
  Vladyslav Matisliewicz 26 

The Barris's were father and son; the Carlson's husband and wife. Albert and Elfrida (Collins) Batley, married just two years, were among the injured. Mrs. Batley lost part of a leg. The couple were later owners of Batley & Son Florists, with more than 7,000 square feet of greenhouse buildings on Acton Street, behind the Fowler funeral home.

One question the Commissioners asked - if the train was stopped - why not send the rear flagman back on the tracks to flag the oncoming train?  Or at least put some torpedoes* on the rails? This would have been the approved practice if the local train had broken down and could not proceed. But that was not the case. The local had just dropped off passengers, and was expected to be underway again within minutes. Being off the train would have separated the flagman from his train.

Not in the newspaper article:

This account draws on reporting published in the Boston Globe and New York Times at the time of the accident, the collections of the Lincoln, MA public library and the Maynard Historical Society, and the railroad investigation of the incident. Source sites:





Interestingly, a 1922 report on medical causes of railroad accidents due to operator error specifically mentioned the Baker Bridge station accident as likely caused by undiagnosed and untreated neurosyphilis! Train operators and crew were known to have a much higher prevalence of syphilis compared to the population as a whole - thought to be a consequence of frequent travel away from family and access to prostitutes. [Chace AE, Hays GA. Railway Age. 1922;73(24):1103-05]  

On a different note, a U.S. report circa 1905 - meaning before the era of cars and trucks and buses, there was an estimate that train and trolley accidents were responsible for approximately 10,000 deaths and 100,000 injuries each year. Currently, rail-related fatalities average around 1,000 per year, the great majority being a combination of people walking along or crossing tracks and vehicles hit while crossing tracks.  

Wikipeida image of torpedo on a rail
Click on photo to enlarge
*A "torpedo" was a small metal packet, about half the size of a business card, filled with gunpowder. When a train's front wheels hit one, it would explode, thus warning the engineer of danger down the track. The torpedo was attached to a strip of lead four inches long. When the torpedo was set on the rail the lead would be bent down on either side in order to hold it in place. Several of these might have been placed on a rail to make sure the following train got the warning. Railroad workers being railroad workers, torpedoes were central to various practical jokes.  


  1. All sorts of different versions on this. The express's engineer was trained on a different route supposedly; Montreal trains going out that route would be bound for the Cheshire Branch to Bellows Falls and over the Rutland RR. In 1900 the B&M had taken over the Fitchburg RR which was the line from North Union Station to Troy NY with the branch to Bellows Falls. It (and the Interborough Subway in NYC) were some of the last RR's in the country using the Red-Green-White color sequence for signals instead of Red-Yellow-Green. In those days of many manual crossings one of the crossing tenders' duties was to light caution signals warning an approaching train there was a train less than 5 minutes ahead--on the Fitchburg Division those were GREEN lanters; on the B&M YELLOW. The engineer may have not taken proper notice of those warnings. I have read this collision was on Saturday November 25, 1905, not Sunday. Oh, and the long-time Town Clerk if Concord, Mass walked with a limp from her injuries as a child in the Baker Bridge Wreck. Will look for more; the station site was on a curve after a long straightaway from South Lincoln I believe.

  2. Accounts at that time clear the accident was Sunday. The key negligence appears to have been that the flagman on the leading train lit and dropped fusees to warn the following train, but that the engineer of the following train had not sufficiently reduced speed.

  3. Really curious to know exactly where this happened. Any clues? Thanks

  4. Per my 2020 comment the key fault appears to have been that the flagman on the leading train lit and dropped fusees to warn the following train, but that the inexperienced engineer of the following train had not sufficiently reduced speed.