What Survivors Had to Say

1, November 2017
Scan of blue invitation to celebration of the Pacific Railroad opening to Jefferson City Invitation to the celebration of the Pacific Railroad's opening from St. Louis to Jefferson City, October 17, 1855. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

In 1855 the Pacific Railroad was completed from St. Louis to Jefferson City, an achievement four years in the making. To celebrate the railroad’s progress, 600 special guests were invited to take a train ride to the Missouri capital. On November 1, 1855, St. Louis officials and dignitaries boarded train cars and settled in for the journey, confident of their safe arrival despite stormy weather. They didn’t anticipate that the weight of the locomotive engine and the fully loaded cars behind it would cause the temporary bridge reinforcements at the Gasconade River to collapse, sending passengers and baggage plummeting.

More than 160 years later, this surprising incident—which cost the lives of 31 individuals, including founding family member Henry Chouteau, pastors Artemus Bullard and John Teasdale, and businessman Thomas O’Flaherty—could be just one blip in the local history books, if that. Thankfully, the words of survivors have been preserved in our collections, adding human perspective to a tragedy that, though far removed from the 21st century, is ultimately no different from large-scale accidents of modern memory.

Black-and-white daguerreotype of Rev. Artemus Bullard and his familyRev. Artemus Bullard and family in 1850. Daguerreotype by Thomas Easterly. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

The opening words of survivor Edward Lewis’s letter to his wife the next morning say it all:

Give thanks to a merciful Providence that I am yet alive & well. I hardly know yet how to realize that I did not share the fate of these mangled bodies around me, which but a few hours ago were in the full enjoyment of life, health and hope.

Scan of the printed short story "The Dream of an Hour" written by Kate Chopin and published in Vogue magazine in 1894Kate Chopin's "The Dream of an Hour," which was influenced by her father's death in the Gasconade River Bridge disaster, was published in Vogue on December 6, 1894. This printed copy was retitled in Chopin's own hand. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

Lewis’s remarks remind us that that train was filled with more than just VIPs—it was jam-packed with people who were living their lives, enjoying a memorable experience and hoping to further railroad development in Missouri. Aboard that train were fathers and sons, brothers and uncles, the loss of whom undoubtedly influenced the lives of those they left behind.

Reports by journalists who were present to record the historic trip paint a picture of the scene shortly after the train cars fell, like this observation from the editor of the Evening News:

Immediately after the accident the heavens grew dark and black, as though night had come. The wind shrieked through the leafless trees; the heavens were rent in twain, and from the crevice gleamed the white lightning, and the hoarse thunder bellowed its cruel mockings at the woe beneath. It seemed as if the elements were holding high carnival over the scene of slaughter.

Written accounts also show us how survivors attempted to process what had happened to them. For his part, Lewis reflected on what could have been—and what was most important to him.

. . . I had but a few minutes before the accident, gone to another part of the car, to have more light in reading a newspaper. Poor Blackburn occupied the seat next in front of the one which I left, & was mashed horribly. I never can describe the overpowering sense of gratitude to my maker which took possession of me, upon finding myself out on the ground and unhurt. My first thought was of my dear wife & little ones, and of the great blow which a kind Providence had miraculously spared them.

Black-and-white daguerreotype showing Pacific Railroad locomotive number 6 in a gold framePacific Railroad locomotive No. 6, 1855. Daguerreotype by Thomas Easterly. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

Nearly 30 years after the disaster, railway man Richard Smith Elliott seemed to still bear a degree of survivor’s remorse, as evidenced by this excerpt from his book Notes Taken in Sixty Years:

The car I was in had gone down after passing the abutment, and rested sloping to the left side on dry ground; and another car lapped on the front half of ours, crushing to death fourteen persons, Dr. Bullard, Mr. Dayton, and others of the best citizens of St. Louis among the number. I had in the earlier part of the day occupied a seat forward of the middle of the car, and relinquished it to a friend who came on at Washington, Elisha B. Jeffries, who was killed. My politeness led to his death.

Scan of pass permitting Charles H. Peck, Esq., to ride the Pacific Railroad on its first trip from St. Louis to Jefferson City Pass signed by railroad engineer Thomas O'Sullivan permitting Charles H. Peck, Esq., to ride the Pacific Railroad on its inaugural journey from St. Louis to Jefferson City. Peck survived the bridge collapse at the Gasconade; O'Sullivan did not. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

As these snippets show, reading the words of people who witnessed historic events brings the past to life in the present. It reminds us that history is the story of people—their thoughts, feelings, and actions—and that whether we’re separated by days or by centuries, we share the experience of living in a world where our physical presence is fleeting but our stories—and humanity—can live on.

—Jen Tebbe, Editor

Membership appeal