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How A Deadly Factory Explosion

Sept. 14–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 a 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.

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