By Karen Frederick and Anne Young
In the early days of Greenwich, volunteers were the town’s first responders. An 1873 newspaper reported that when the church bell rang, “Citizens and strangers by the score and the hundred answered the call.” Throughout its history, the Town of Greenwich has seen many emergencies and disasters. Each experience caused the town to reexamine its needs and respond. From this has evolved today’s first responders—police, fire, and emergency medical service (GEMS).
July 16, 1908
The gong of the ambulances on Greenwich Avenue broadcast one of the worst accidents on the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad. The White Mountain Express, which passed through Greenwich every morning at 9:20, had derailed.
The train, traveling at 50 miles per hour, went off the track 20 feet west of the bridge over Steamboat Road. The nine cars were dragged nearly 500 feet before they came to a halt. The parlor car turned over completely pinning an 18-year-old girl underneath. After 20 minutes, using several jack screws to raise the car and sawing and chopping out part of the side, rescuers finally removed the young girl; she died a few minutes later.
The stone cut where the train derailed soon filled with men, women, and children eager to catch a glimpse of anything that was happening on the track below. It was estimated that 10,000 curiosity seekers arrived to view the wreck.
Collaboration a Key Response
Andrew Talbot, the acting Chief of Police, responded immediately and established police lines to keep back the crowds. Greenwich volunteer firefighters arrived with axes to help those trapped in the wreckage. Despite the instability of the wrecked cars, Officer James Nedley, later police chief; Benjamin F. Warford; Daniel Lent; and Samuel A. Mills were among the people who rushed to the scene. They evacuated passengers through the broken glass of the windows to places of safety. Survivors said that not one person from the railroad company helped.
The surgeons on the staff of Millbank and General Hospitals were called to treat the injuries. All available ambulances were summoned to the scene. Chauffeurs waiting at the station were sent to bring physicians, and private carriages were used to take the injured to the hospitals. The Chief of Police placed under arrest the motorman and conductor. They were interrogated by the local prosecuting attorney and released.
Karen Frederick, Curator and Exhibitions Coordinator, and Anne Young, former Curator of Library and Archives, of the Greenwich Historical Society contributed this article and co-curated the exhibition Everyday Heroes: Greenwich First Responders (September 14 through August 26, 2012) from which it is derived.