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1854: Boiling Over

In the early afternoon of Thursday, March 2, 1854, a Mr. Ashe, the head painter of the Fales & Gray Car Factory, was standing on the bank of the Little River, south of the factory located on Potter Street. Gazing back on the factory, Ashe attempted to commit to canvas a landscape that could be replicated on the railway cars produced by his employer. What he saw next defied any attempt at illustration.   

Just as he started to sketch, he later remembered, a "shock came, and the building trembled before him, then fell with an awful crash."  Terrified, Ashe never completed the sketch.  Although he was a talented artist, he could "hardly impress upon canvas the vivid imagery or terrible reality rather, that burst out before him in that shock of destruction and death.”

What Mr. Ashe saw was the explosion of the Fales & Gray factory, which killed nineteen of the company's three -hundred workers instantly and severely wounded twenty-three others. Every building on the property was “shivered to atoms” and pieces of the factory’s steam boiler were found as far afield as two-hundred feet away.

Indeed, Mr. Ashe, or any artist for that matter, might have felt unequipped to represent the scene. Instead, the city’s worst disaster in almost 100 years was etched into memory using photography. The resulting photographs, believed to be some of the first photographs ever taken of Hartford, show the remains of the factory and focus on the devastation of Potter Street.

Terrible as the physical devastation was, public remarks spawned by the explosion printed in newspapers and preached from pulpits quickly moved beyond the physical destruction of the factory site.

Who was at fault for the explosion? How should the city respond? Most importantly for some, what might all of this suffering mean? These were the questions that haunted Hartford in the days following the blast. 

Check out the following pages to explore the many different ways that people answered these questions and the ways in which people coped with the disaster.