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The Deadly Train Crash of 1865

Welcome back, Monroe history lovers. This week’s history is inspired by reader Maureen Todd-Rose, who recently suggested we do an article on the train crash at Stepney in the 1800s. Now, I don’t typically take requests, but this particular history has been in my mental queue for quite some time. Before we leave the station, let’s answer a question. What does the historical society do when we suspect an error in our historic record? Well, it’s simple. We compile all our evidence and weigh it against the current claim. If the evidence proves an error has been made, we’re obliged to correct it. Today’s history spotlight is an example of this rarity. So, let’s set out on this journey together. All aboard!

In our late historian Ed Coffey’s book, A Glimpse of Old Monroe, (1974), there is a story of a deadly train crash stated to have taken place at Stepney on August 14, 1865. The horrific illustrations are taken from the Harper’s Weekly journal. For many years I had tried to pinpoint the precise location of the crash but failed in my endeavor. Then, one day while researching unrelated history from the same era, I came across a newspaper article that gave me a completely different perspective on the event. And, with that article found, numerous others followed. You see, not only was this crash major news of the day, the legal trials of the railroad executives and personnel that followed were major news as well, and not just in Connecticut.

The detailed articles made it clear that the crash didn’t take place at Stepney at all. It actually happened in northern Bridgeport, just south of the Trumbull town line near the curve at the Pequonnock Mills. Now, for those of you who don’t know the location of the Pequonnock Mills, I’ve included a map of Bridgeport from 1867 showing their location. The Pequonnock Mills were located where The Wonderland of Ice stands today, at the southern end of Bunnells Pond in Beardsley Park. On the map you can see the railroad running along the western edge of the pond. This is the same path that Route 25-8 follows today.

It’s clear that Ed Coffey didn’t personally add the captions below the illustrations within his book. There’s a clue in one of the captions that says, “Nearly 94 years ago…” Wait a minute! The crash took place in 1865, and the illustration’s caption is from nearly 94 years into the future? Further research has revealed that Ed Coffey’s book contains the details of a contemporary article that was published in the Bridgeport Sunday Post on March 15, 1959, the article’s author wrongly concluding the crash took place at Stepney. I have included the original Harpers Weekly article from the time of the crash in 1865. In this original publication, the illustrations are identical to those found within Ed Coffey’s book, but their captions and the details of the crash tell a very different story.

Now, please keep in mind, this is in no way a scathing critique of Ed Coffey or his fine book. Quite the contrary. His intentions were pure, and he was simply doing his best with the evidence available to him at the time. And, if he hadn’t included the story, no one would likely still be talking about it with interest today. We’re all indebted to Ed Coffey’s dedication to Monroe history, and if you haven’t read his definitive book, it’s in the reference section of the Edith Wheeler Memorial Library. Head on over and give it a good read. It’s well worth your time. As its title suggests, it’s merely a “Glimpse”. It’s now our responsibility to keep the search alive for new history, now 50 years after it was published.

I hope you enjoy this week’s historic spotlight and our shoutout to Maureen Todd-Rose. We thank her for her suggestion. Sometimes the details of Monroe history take us to a completely different town, but that’s okay. The journey is no less interesting. Please share this railroad history with your family and friends, and as always, thank you for your continued support and interest in Monroe’s rich history. Want to learn more? The supplied QR Code will take you to additional related details at Connecticut Until next time. Go slow. In life, you never know what awaits you just around the curve.


Kevin Daly
Historian, Monroe Historical Society
Our Past is Always Present

1 - Pequonnock Mills 1867.jpg
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