The Roslindale Historical Society and Roslindale Village Main Street are sponsoring a month of events around the 125th anniversary of the Bussey Bridge disaster. It starts Saturday with "drop-in train-related art activities for kids" at the library and tours of the long-shuttered Roslindale Square trolley substation (fans of urban exploring: you need to go) and includes a panel discussion about the diaster and train-related movies.
Besides leading to national changes in how railroads maintained bridges, the wreck led to a growth spurt in Roslindale - many of the sightseers who came from miles around to look at the wreckage (and try to sneak away some of the debris as souvenirs) liked what they saw of the surrounding countryside and decided to move there.
March 14, 1887 was your basic dreary March day. Commuters bound for Boston boarded the nine-car train at Dedham (where the Dedham Square parking lot is today). More got on at stops in West Roxbury. By the time the train left Roslindale, the only seats left were in the smoker car at the end.
Already seven minutes behind schedule as he pulled out of Roslindale, engineer Walter White got the train up to 30 m.p.h. as he approached what many still called "Tin Bridge," even though the tin-covered wooden span across South Street had been replaced a few years earlier by an iron bridge, a bridge that crossed the road about 40 feet up at a sharp angle to satisfy Harvard University, which didn't want construction to disturb any of the trees on the Bussey woods it had newly acquired (today we know the land as the Arnold Arboretum).
The locomotive got across the bridge - rated for 12 m.p.h. - OK, as did the first couple of cars. And then, White reported, he felt a sharp jolt. From a Yankee Magazine account:
Immediately he looked back and saw the first car off the track, careening drunkenly behind him. His blood ran cold as he watched the second, third, and fourth cars dancing insanely, trailed by an ugly cloud of smoke and dust where five more cars loaded with passengers should be crossing the bridge,
Instinctively he knew that his train, save the first three or four cars, had gone through the bridge. In the seconds it took for the awesome spectacle to unfold, White's hands pulled the reversing lever - the fastest way to bring the Torrey to a halt. By now the force of the writhing cars and their human cargo had snapped the coupling at the tender and the Torrey was free.
White immediately blew the train whistle as a cry for help. And then he sped towards Forest Hills, whistle shrieking, to summon more help. In a detailed (and very graphic) account, the Times reports:
The first man to reach the wreck was J.H. Lannon, a fish dealer. He was driving [his horse-drawn wagon] up from Forest Hills toward the scene of the disaster when the engine of the wrecked train came down the track whistling wildly. The locomotive slowed down at the Forest Hills crossing and Lannon stopped his team, shouting to the engineer:
"What's the matter?"
"My train has gone through Tin Bridge! Telegraph to Boston!" was the reply.
Lannon ran to the station with the message, which was quickly flashed over the wires. Then he hastened back to his team, and drove up the road to the wreck. When he reached it, cries and groans were coming from all parts of the awful heap.
What he and a rapidly growing number of policemen, firefighters, railroad employees, nearby residents and doctors - the railroad organized a special train to bring doctors out from Park Square - was a horrifying scene of decapitated and mangled bodies, of people trapped inches from lit pot-belly stoves, blood and limbs scattered among the remains of the train cars. Many of the dead and injured were taken to their homes nearby - half the victims were from Roslindale. Soon, the sightseers arrived to gawk at the devastation. Police had to put ropes along the embankment to keep people from falling in - and taking souvenirs. A Roslindale Historical Society account features an interview with the son of one of those gawkers:
At that time my father and grandfather lived in South Boston. My grandfather was a builder in Boston, who had built part of the Old Boston City Hall. He and my father walked out from South Boston to Roslindale in order to see the disaster. And when they got there, they looked around, and my grandfather said, "Son, this looks like a beautiful country." He said, "I'd like to live around here. Maybe we ought to move out here." Subsequently, they came to Roslindale, and he built his home. The wreck brought a great many people."
The state Board of Railroad Commissioners, which began hearings the very next day, concluded that while White had been going too fast, the real problem was that a poorly constructed and maintained bridge basically failed. The company hired to build the bridge turned out not to exist - it was a fiction dreamed up by one guy to win the contract. The railroad did a lousy job of supervising his work and inspecting the span, and the board concluded that even if the bridge had not given way that day, something else might have soon led to a similar disaster. As the Globe reported:
Found in the Ill-Starred
Bad in Contract and
Bad in Make,
Bad in Testing and Very Bad
The disaster led to closer inspections of bridges across the country - and new requirements that only certified engineers be allowed to conduct those inspections.
In Rosalindale, the bridge was replaced not with another iron span, but with a massive stone and cement structure that today seems oddly out of place the first time you drive down Archdale Road (named in part for the bridge) or South Street:
On the Archdale side of the bridge is a plaque near the top commemorating the disaster. A few blocks closer to Forest Hills, behind the Puritan Ice Cream building, sits another relic of that day - a smaller stone bridge that White drove his train over as he raced to Forest Hills for help (the small boarded-up building is actually an old blacksmith's shop):