I’m all for bringing commuter rail to Manchester, as long as it comes with Basic Training

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So I’ve been following the debate over bringing commuter rail service to Manchester with great interest and, I must confess, with great trepidation.

Am I for it? Yes, but as a student of Manchester history, I am also quite aware of the mayhem that both freight and passenger trains have rained down on our community in years past.

To refresh my memory, I spent much of last week reading about horrific train-related accidents from Manchester’s industrial past – accidents that involved extreme anatomical injuries of an unbelievably personal nature – and as a result, I have developed a pathological fear of any and all trains , up to and including the miniature Lionel variety. Before I’m through, you may, too.

It started innocently enough. I came upon a sad story about a young man named Daniel McCarty. He was 24 years old and he lived at 29 West Cedar St., and he worked for the Concord Railroad here in Manchester. Alas, on Sept. 18, 1883, while working on the gravel rail beds, he met his maker when he made the mistake of stepping in front of a moving passenger train.

“He was caught in the sweep of a cow-catcher,” The Manchester Mirror & American reported, “and hurled with gigantic force against the gravel train on the side track, striking with such force as to bruise his body shockingly.”

Old time locomotive with built-in sensors that would throw anything in its path 40 feet. Well, that's unconfirmed, but seems apparent from the historical record.
Old time locomotive with built-in sensors that would throw anything in its path 40 feet. Well, that”s unconfirmed, but seems apparent from the historical record.

I figured it was an aberration. You know, one of those occupational hazard-type situations where the inherent dangers in a particular line of work will manifest themselves from time to time, but, upon further inspection, I found that the population of Manchester – rail workers and civilians alike – was being thinned and winnowed by railroad trains on a regular basis.

The carnage was staggering, as was the purple prose that local newspaper reporters employed to keep readers informed.

“Cut to Pieces,” was the headline that announced the grim death of Frank Ritchie on Aug. 21, 1894. He worked as a joint switchman in the Millyard and the story of his death likened the train that caused his death to a “bloody guillotine” with “crimsoned wheels.”

Incidentally, 40 feet seems to be the linear measurement of choice when it came to newspaper coverage of train-related mayhem.

Consider the 40-foot fate of Charles A. Carroll, who was driving his horse-drawn milk cart in the vicinity of the Beech Street crossing of the Concord and Portsmouth Railroad as a train approached. According to The Manchester Union:

“Carroll undertook to get by in front of the train. The horse managed to escape the train,” the paper stated, “but the rear part of the wagon was struck and Carroll was sent flying in the air and landed on his head” – you guessed it – “40 feet away.” At least Mr. Carroll survived.

Not so the unidentified man who prompted this headline in the Sept. 26, 1891 edition of The Union: “A Locomotive Cuts a Man’s Head off, Then Throws it Forty Feet from the Body.” By the way, the head landed a stone’s throw – which we can now assume is a euphemism for “40 feet” – from the Manchester Locomotive Works.

Let’s break out the tape measure one last time for the sad tale of Michael “Flewey” Edwards, who, on Oct. 29, 1889, “was seen at City Hall at 9 o’clock, considerably under the influence of liquor. Half an hour later, he was seen in the railroad yard and that is the last time he was seen alive.”

“At midnight,” The Manchester Mirror reported, “his mangled form was picked up in pieces extending for a distance of” – all together now! – “forty feet along the tracks about a mile below Goffe’s Falls.”

If 40 feet was a common thread amongst train maimings, so was alcohol.

You just read about Flewey Edwards having been “considerably under the influence of liquor,” so now consider the July 2, 1888 case of 22-year-old Joseph Quinn, who, according to The Union, “Fell Asleep Under a Freight Car; And Is Roused to Meet a Horrible Death.”

In the body of the story, The Union added that, “A small can was found beside the spot where his body was first caught by the cars, which indicated he had been taking stale beer from some empty barrels in the vicinity.”

Then there was the cautionary tale of John M. Barnard and George Elliott, woodcutters who came from Chichester after three weeks of work in the woods. It was April 17, 1884, and according to The Mirror, “All the money possessed by either was one dollar, (and) with this, the two men purchased a pint of whiskey each.”

You’ve heard of someone being from the wrong side of the tracks? Later that night, in Goffe’s Falls, George Elliott was on both sides of the tracks.

“A railway train never made greater havoc with a man’s body than the 2:30 o’clock freight train,” The Mirror reported. “The sight has certainly never been surpassed in this city for hideousness, and the sickly fumes of the liquor which the man had taken pervaded the air ’round about and furnished its own commentary on the tragic fate of the victim.”

Even if you weren’t drinking, it would have been wise to cross your fingers before crossing the railroad tracks, as victims ranged from the impulsive, such as Miss Nora Gorman, who tried – and failed – to beat the # 754 train across the tracks on Canal Street on Aug. 9, 1896; to the inattentive, such as 16-year-old Timothy Sullivan, who apparently didn’t notice the train bearing down on him at the Youngsville Crossing on Oct. 2, 1881.

So, in conclusion, should passenger rail travel ever return to Manchester, I suggest we launch an extensive public information and educational program that will help keep everyone safe and sound. And whole.

I even have a name for this program.

We can call it “Basic Training.”


John Clayton
John Clayton


John Clayton is Executive Director of the Manchester Historic Association. You can reach him with your historical questions at jclayton@manchesterhistoric.org.

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