Snippets 116. Exactly 175 years ago today a tragic rail accident occurred between Versailles and Paris, on 8th May 1842. A locomotive broke an axle and derailed, causing the carriages behind to crash into it and catch fire. Astonishingly, it was standard practice to lock carriage doors with the passengers inside at the time, so many people were trapped and of the 770 passengers somewhere between 52 and 200 tragically died. This was at the time the worst rail disaster the world had ever seen.
In his Notes on Railroad Accidents (1879), Charles Francis Adams described the events of the day, and also how the disaster gave the French people pause for thought about whether rail travel, still in its infancy, was the right path for the country to take, or whether they should return to more traditional means of travel. But, as always, it is very hard to stop progress.
It was the birthday of the king, Louis Philippe, and, in accordance with the usual practice, the occasion had been celebrated at Versailles by a great display of the fountains. At half past five o’clock these had stopped playing, and a general rush ensued for the trains then about to leave for Paris. That which went by the road along the left bank of the Seine was densely crowded, and so long that two locomotives were required to draw it. As it was moving at a high rate of speed between Bellevue and Meudon, the axle of the foremost of these two locomotives broke, letting the body of the engine drop to the ground. It instantly stopped, and the second locomotive was then driven by its impetus on top of the first, crushing its engineer and fireman, while the contents of both the fire-boxes were scattered over the roadway and among the debris. Three carriages crowded with passengers were then piled on top of this burning mass and there crushed together into each other. The doors of these carriages were locked, as was then and indeed is still the custom in Europe, and it so chanced that they had all been newly painted. They blazed up like pine kindlings.
Some of the carriages were so shattered that a portion of those in them were enabled to extricate themselves, but the very much larger number were held fast; and of these such as were not so fortunate as to be crushed to death in the first shock perished hopelessly in the flames before the eyes of a throng of lookers-on impotent to aid…
It is not easy now to conceive the excitement and dismay which this catastrophe caused throughout France. The railroad was at once associated in the minds of an excitable people with novel forms of imminent death. France had at best been laggard enough in its adoption of the new invention, and now it seemed for a time as if the Versailles disaster was to operate as a barrier in the way of all further railroad development. Persons availed themselves of the steam roads already constructed as rarely as possible, and then in fear and trembling, while steps were taken to substitute horse for steam power on other roads then in process of construction.