At 2 pm on March 2, 1854, the power of steam incorrectly managed and harnessed wreaked havoc at the railroad-car factory Fales & Gray Car Works in Hartford. The explosion destroyed the blacksmith shop and engine room and badly damaged the main building. On March 3, 1854, The New York Times reported that Fales & Gray employed 300 people; a third of them were working in the part of the factory impacted by the blast. “The explosion was most terrific—breaking the timbers of the building, powerful machinery… and prostrating the walls of the building for a hundred feet in length.” Workmen were buried in the rubble when the roof and walls caved in. Sixteen workers were killed, and “a great many” injured. The cause was a new 50-horse-power boiler that had been in operation for about a month. The power of the blast killed the boiler’s engineer, John McCuen, whose arm was found “at some distance from the body.” Other victims were “horribly mutilated, and in some instances the bodies could scarcely be recognized.”
Ellsworth Grant, in Connecticut Disasters, relates that on the morning after the disaster, a jury inspected the site and the remains of the boiler and convened an investigation, hearing six days of testimony from workers, managers, and the boiler manufacturer. The investigation pointed to McCuen’s carelessness, which resulted in a dangerously low water level and abnormally high steam pressure. The company was also faulted for not locating the boiler room away from the employees in a separate building. It would be another 10 years, however, before the state enacted a boiler inspection law.
On the evening after the explosion, a broadside (a copy of which is in the collection of the Connecticut Historical Society) announced a citywide meeting “for the purpose of appointing a committee to raise and distribute funds for the alleviation of the wants of widows and orphans made by the late sad catastrophe.” City leaders were also moved to establish the city’s first hospital, as the lack of facilities to treat the volume and seriousness of the injuries could no longer be ignored. Hartford Hospital was established within months.
Contributed by Emma Demar, a Connecticut Explored intern and Trinity College student in 2011, and Elizabeth Normen, the magazine’s publisher.
© Connecticut Explored. All rights reserved. This passage originally appeared as part of the article “What a Disaster!” in Connecticut Explored (formerly Hog River Journal) Vol. 9/ No. 4, Fall 2011.