Out in Elm Grove Cemetery, in lot 18, the family plot of the John Eldred clan, stands a round-topped marble stone commemorating the short life and sudden death of 18-year-old George Eldred of Wickford. The wording on the stone gives a hint of the level of grief and loss felt by his family. Across the top is written, “George we miss thee at home” and along the bottom, under the epitaph that describes his death, is the following verse. “Stop passenger and drop one bitter tear o’er the lamented form that moulders here”. Between these two solemn verses we can find that young George was the “Fireman on the engine of the ill-fated Stonington Steamboat Train”. Yes, George was the young man who stoked the fires of that engine as it sped towards its date with destiny, towards Wood River Junction, towards the Wreck at the Richmond Switch.
The Stonington Steamboat Train was a regular service that ran between Stonington Ct, Wickford Junction, Providence, and Boston. It brought passengers from New York who had made the trip from the city to Stonington via a steamboat on to their ultimate destinations. Most of these folks were either immigrants fresh off the boats in New York City headed for factory or textile mill jobs in Providence or Boston, or travelers destined for Newport via the Newport to Wickford Rail and Steamship Line that they would board at Wickford Junction. But on April 19, 1873, none of those folks would reach their connections on time, as a matter of fact; some would never get there at all. You see, unbeknownst to all involved, something was about to go terribly wrong at the dam which held back the Meadow Brook in Richmond supplying power for George Ennis’ little Gristmill. Way too much rain was about to cause that dam to give way.
All this was occurring about the same time that engineer William Guile of Providence and fireman George Eldred of Wickford were climbing out of their stylish engine, the N.F. Dixon, at Stonington Junction. The boat train had stopped there because its late departure from the steamboat landing caused it to be at the main line around the same time that the passenger and mail train “The Shore Line Express” was due through. Boat Train conductor Orrin Gardiner and express train conductor Thomas Sprague were hot at it in an argument over which train ought to proceed first. Ultimately Gardiner won the shouting match, definitely to the detriment of those aboard the Boat Train, but as fate would have it, the disaster would have been all the greater had the fully loaded “Shore Line Express” gone ahead.
At 3:15 AM, the shouting match was over and a satisfied Gardiner climbed aboard and instructed Guile and Eldred to proceed full steam ahead. Just as the train crossed the Pawcatuck River and entered RI Ennis’ Millpond dam let go and a 10 foot high wall of water proceeded to tear down the normally shallow channel of the Meadow Brook and slam into the tracks on the railroad bridge just 100 yards down stream. The bridge gave way just as the boat train arrived on the scene.
One moment the train was chugging along at upwards of 40 mph and the next she was careening across the 40 ft. chasm caused by the dam washout. The locomotive’s headlight pointed high into the night sky as she jumped the river and crashed into the bank on the other side, a piece of track from the failed bridge driven clean through her boiler from end to end. The coal tender jackknifed and came to rest atop the engine and the then it all burst into flames. Following the engine and tender, three flat cars loaded with freight and three of the four coach cars fell into the gulf. Only one coach car, the smoking car, and the caboose stayed out of the stream. Luckily for most of the passengers, the coach cars were driven atop the now sunken freight flat cars and those that survived the impact were spared immediate death by drowning. But now there were the fires to contend with, and as was most prominent upon the racing mind of Conductor Orrin Gardiner, who had survived by virtue of his need for a good cigar that had sent him to the smoking car, The Shore Line Express would be here in minutes; She had to be alerted no matter what the cost, for if she slammed into the wreck, the devastation would be unthinkable. Gardiner caught the attention of brakeman Walter Monroe and gave him a red lantern “Take the red light. Carry it down the tracks as quickly as possible. The Express must be stopped!” Monroe got around the curve in the nick of time; the squealing of metal on metal indicated to him that his message was seen; the Shore Line Express was stopped. Conductor Sprague of the Express climbed aboard his engine and ordered the cars to be dropped. He then had the Express’s engine pulled up to the wreck and they towed all the remaining cars out of the inferno just as the fire began to blister up their varnish. There was no escape for those trapped in the wreckage and the screams heard on that night by the crash survivors and the Express passengers would haunt them until the end of their days.
Upon the morning light, the extent of the devastation could be seen. The cars burned until there was nothing left but ashes and glowing metal. The trapped passengers were burned beyond recognition. Women were only identified by the melted remains of their hoop skirts. Engineer Guile was found “charred beyond recognition, his hand still outstretched towards the throttle” he was identified conclusively by the partially melted pocket watch he had recently received from the railroad for his long years of service. And Wickford’s own George Eldred, an 18-year-old with his whole life ahead of him, was found “burned to a crisp with the engine’s brake lever clutched in his blackened hands”. This fact did little to assuage the grief felt by John and Abby Eldred as they placed their son in the grave to “moulder” for all eternity.