While seemingly every facet of the explosion would be disputed after the fact, no one could dispute that around 2 pm on March 2nd, the steam boiler in the main building of the Fales & Gray car factory exploded, demolishing the buildings that made up the factory complex. How can we know what happened that day in 1854? We can only rely on what our sources say, and attempt to understand what people in Hartford thought was happening on their terms. To do this, we have to turn to what sources have survived.
One of the main sources we have is a pamphlet entitled “An Account of the Terrible Explosion at Fales & Gray’s Car Manufactory” which was published soon after the tragedy for the benefit of the survivors. It includes a transcript of the inquest, and of some of the sermons that focused on the blast. For our purposes, let’s take a look at the introductory section that described the event itself. The anonymous authors of this account focus less on the mechanics of the boiler and what might have caused the blast, then on appeals to emotion to instill in the reader the devastation of the aftermath. Here is their description of moments after the explosion:
“To paint the agony of the relatives, wives, children, mothers and fathers, whose relatives were sufferers, would be impossible. They rushed wildly to and fro, while the workmen were extricating the sufferers, calling upon their relatives in the most piteous tones; and when a body was brought out, the eagerness they manifested to know if it was that of a relative, must be imagined, for no words can describe. Suffice it to say, that in many instances, they failed to recognize their own relatives, so blackened, and distorted, and mutilated were the bodies, by the dirt, bruises, and fearful scalds. Some were so badly scalded, that on touching them the skin peeled off in the hand. Many of the dead were only recognized by the clothing they wore, and as their relatives sought them out, and found them in the arms of death, the scenes which ensued on recognition were painful in the extreme. The majority of the workmen lived in the immediate neighborhood, consequently the interest excited by the catastrophe, brought large troops of friends and acquaintances to the spot, many of whom, especially the ladies, exerted themselves to soothe the wild grief of the bereaved.”
How does this passage help us to understand the explosion and its aftermath?
While we can never know exactly what happened on this tragic day, this anonymous account invites our imaginations to picture a chaotic scene that involved not only the destroyed factory, but the surrounding neighborhood where many of the workers lived. Some of the addresses of the dead were listed in the pamphlet, showing readers how closely connected the surrounding neighborhoods were to the factory. Women rushed to the scene to help the grieving, and to help identify the dead and wounded who were made unrecognizable to their own families by the blast.
The purpose of the pamphlet was not only to present a narrative of the explosion, but to produce sympathy in the reader, and encourage further donations to the surviving families. To that end, the authors included an account of the cruel cost of the explosion for one family in particular: