How A Deadly Factory Explosion
Sept. 15–On a March afternoon 160 years ago, a new steam boiler at the Fales & Gray Car Works near Hartford’s
riverfront welled with pressure until it blasted into shrapnel,
demolishing much of the building. Workers were hurled through the air
and crushed by tumbling brick walls and timbers.
Macabre scenes vividly detailed in The Courant convey the dire work conditions and gritty urban living of Hartford’s
industrial heyday. The city was ill equipped to triage the injured
because, in those days, there was no hospital — just charitable
stations, like the Home for the Sick at Maple and Retreat avenues, with
only five beds. Conflicting reports differ on the exact toll, but most
agree nine were killed instantly and 10 or 12 more died later. The blast
injured more than 20 and possibly as many as 50.
It was a call to action: Hartford needed a hospital.
At the time, doctors made house calls and even performed surgeries in homes. But Hartford’s
factories in the burgeoning industrial era were attracting single men
and poor laborers, particularly Irish immigrants who came to America
after the potato famine from 1840-1852, said H. David Crombie, a retired general surgeon who worked at Hartford Hospital and was editor of the hospital’s Bulletin in the 1980s. Crombie has studied Hartford history for decades, particularly as it pertains to medicine and Hartford Hospital.
“So, here was Hartford,
a fairly prosperous city with some wealthy people who needed stable
boys and housemaids and cleaning ladies and domestic help, and, so,
there was a place where those individuals could find work,” Crombie
said. “And the homes that they had — third-floor, cold-water flats —
were totally unsuited to anybody being cared for with an injury or an
For years, the public balked at the Hartford Medical Society’s repeated pleas for a hospital, which would require philanthropic support and state funds. The Courant estimated it would take $50,000 to buy land and build a hospital — at a time when wages were 75 cents to $1.50 per day, according to the 2004 book, “The Healing Triangle: Hartford Hospital’s First 150 Years,” by Bruce Clouette and Brian Lever.
doctors cared for the well-to-do at home, poor laborers and their
family members ended up in charitable sick homes, the predecessors to
hospitals as a place of last resort for someone seriously ill or
injured, Crombie said.
“You have to realize that the institutions that were taking care of
the sick were in the category of almshouses and pest houses, in the
sense that the infected people of the lower echelons of society that had
no home — or at least didn’t have a dignified, classy looking home
that you would bring a doctor in to look after you — they went to those
institutions,” Crombie said.
New Haven’sGeneral Hospital Society of Connecticut had opened in 1826 as the first hospital in Connecticut and the fourth voluntary hospital in the nation. The hospital followed the founding of The Medical Institution of Yale College in 1810. Students needed a place to observe the practice of medicine. Hartford didn’t have a medical school, so, the educational demands for a hospital weren’t there, Crombie said.
Medicine was not the refined and regulated practice that it is today. Only about half of medical practitioners in Central Connecticut
during the 1850s had been to medical school, Crombie said. Medical
students would have attended a series of lectures for six months or a
year at nearby medical schools of the day, Yale or Dartmouth, Crombie
said. Many simply worked as apprentices to other doctors as any
tradesman might, he said.
“Surgery was done on kitchen tables,” said Steven R. Lytle, retired archivist for Hartford Hospital.
A Thriving Enterprise
The 1850s were a time of change and growth in Hartford.
The city’s population more than doubled from 13,555 to 29,152 between
1850 and 1860. Factories grew in size and in the number of people
One such thriving enterprise was Fales & Gray. It
employed about 300 people, which was a lot in those days as work
opportunities expanded from small blacksmith shops and other tiny trade
In the Fales & Gray Car Works plant, soot-smeared
blacksmiths toiled near white-hot furnaces, their assistants hammering
metal into shape as parts for railroad cars, according to “Connecticut
Disasters: True Stories Of Tragedy And Survival,” by Ellsworth S. Grant.
factory’s new steam boiler that flew apart in mangled wreckage had
replaced an older one, often rigged with lead weights hung from the
safety valve to keep the machine chugging along regardless of potential
hazards, according to testimony and Grant’s book.
It’s not as though Fales & Gray was the first catastrophic result of the industrial age involving a steam engine in Connecticut. Far from it.
Steamboats made regular trips from Hartford to New York and back as early as the 1820s. On Oct. 8, 1833, two boilers on the steamboat “New England” exploded on the Connecticut River near Essex,
lighting up the sky and resounding like a heavy cannon. People on shore
could hear the groans and shrieks of people injured and dying, Grant
wrote. Thirteen people were killed.
But, unlike the riverboat disasters, the Fales & Gray explosion happened in the heart of Hartford, underscoring the city’s lack of preparedness to handle such a calamity.
A Few Drinks With The Midday Meal
Fales & Gray was near the Connecticut River on Potter Street. It was common for laborers to slug down a beer at a Front Street saloon during the midday dinner hour, Grant wrote in his book.
The operator of the steam boiler, John McCune, previously had left the job because of the low pay — $1.50 a day. But his replacement couldn’t handle the work, and McCune was rehired at $1.75
a day. The factory proprietors also ordered a new boiler with five
flues, “from Woodruff & Beach, the best boiler- and engine-makers in
Hartford and suppliers to factories all over Connecticut,” Grant wrote in “Connecticut Disasters.”
The machine had been operating only about a month on the afternoon of March 2, 1854.
had come back from a midday meal during which he downed a few drinks
with a friend at a nearby saloon. McCune was talking to a local printer
named William Skinner who came into the factory, against company rules, to chat as he delayed getting back to work following his dinner.
McCune, who was distracted and had a little alcohol in his system, also was prone to carelessness, according to one co-worker.
“I considered John rather a careless man,” Charles Gardner,
a 20-year-old striker in the blacksmith shop, told jurors at the
“Coroner’s Jury” or inquest, held during the days after the explosion.
forenoon I had a conversation with McCune in regard to his carelessness
and told him if [the steam boiler] blew it would kill me, and he said,
‘God, I shall have a blow up if I am not more careful.’ He said he did
not like the 5 flue boilers, it worked his water off so fast; he was
always tired at night. He had to fly around so with the new boiler …”
Blow up, it did — right around 2 p.m.
One blacksmith, Edmund Collins,
told jurors he “saw nothing of the explosion until I found myself
buried with rubbish — I got out myself but was severely injured.” He
said 11 of his colleagues were killed in the explosion and eight more
were injured. The blacksmith shop was separated from the boiler room by
an 8-inch-thick brick wall, which collapsed along with wooden beams
above and the building’s roof, according to Grant’s book.
man was buried in rubbish near me whom I tried to get out — don’t know
who he was — saw nothing to give any alarm or indicate an explosion
until I found myself buried in the ruins,” The Courant reported Collins
During the inquest, Thomas J. Fales
described McCune as a competent engineer but “slovenly,” and testified
that McCune’s wife had told him her husband had “domestic faults.”
The explosion was the talk of Hartford.
On March 14, The Courant wrote an editorial calling for a hospital:
late unfortunate calamity demonstrates clearly the necessity of the
establishment of a regular and efficient Hospital in our City. …
Accidents are constantly occurring in the breaking of limbs and in other
similar calamities where a place is needed for the proper attention and
care of those suffering thereby. … The utility of such an institution
is evident. The necessity of it so great as to call for immediate
action. Who will move in it?”
On May 2, 1854, just
two months after the blast, a grassroots gathering met at Melodeon Hall
and formed a committee for the founding of a hospital in Hartford, according to Clouette’s and Lever’s book. The state legislature passed a resolution that year incorporating Hartford Hospital on paper.
following February, doctors, wealthy merchants, manufacturers and some
of the people involved in the Home for the Sick met and formed the first
board of directors of the newly founded Hartford Hospital.
hospital wasn’t the only outgrowth of the Fales & Gray explosion. A
decade later, the state Legislature passed a boiler inspection law
requiring annual safety inspections, according to the 1966 book “The Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company” by Glenn Weaver.
The blast also led to the formation of the Polytechnic Club
of men who were in industries and businesses involving steam power,
according to Weaver. The club disbanded after some years, but two of its
members — J.M. Allen and Edward M. Reed — came together after the explosion of the Mississippi steamboat Sultana on April 27, 1865, to form an agency that would inspect and insure steam boilers, Weaver wrote.
Allen, Reed and the president of the Connecticut River Banking Co., John A. Butler, together incorporated The Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Co. The company is still in business 148 years later, specializing in equipment-breakdown insurance and other specialty coverage.
The Fales & Gray explosion was an awakening in Hartford of the dangers of mass casualties and injuries during an industrial age.
accidents were happening all the time,” Crombie said of the 1800s.
“Horses were kicking guys and fracturing their skulls, and all of that
sort of thing. But in each case, it was a mini-event.
you get this, with 20 people dead and all these casualties, people who
had to have bones set and wounds cleaned up and all that. … It was
risky territory all over the industrial era, particularly in the first