One of the darkest days in Shelton ’s history occurred on July 26, 1934. On that hot, fateful day during a heat wave, eight children joined their friends swimming in the Housatonic River, just above Riverview Park, across from the Yale Boathouse.
Soon after their refreshing dip, the children, seven boys and one girl, walked a short distance down the railroad tracks, just below a curve. We’ll never know exactly why they decided to sit on a platform in the middle of the west side tracks and pull out a deck of cards – kids sometimes do crazy things.
A northbound freight train passed on the east side tracks. The locomotive’s engineer shouted at the children, while the boiler fireman started spraying water at them. The kids just laughed as the train passed only a few feet away from where they were sitting.
Between the noise of the passing train, and the fact it was obscuring the view around the bend, they could not have known that a second train was coming southbound on the west side tracks. The same tracks they were sitting between.
The southbound train was coming fast, about 40 mph, and the kids were only about 75 feet below the curve – out of sight of its engineer. There was no time for either the children or the engineer to react.
The remaining swimmers on the riverbank, and people overlooking the scene at Riverview Park where the playground is today, watched stunned as the carnage unfolded before them. The time was about 3:15 p.m.
An eerie quiet fell upon the area, the only sound being the brakes of both locomotives screaming to a stop. Rescuers scrambled down the steep embankment from Riverview Park.
Four of the children died instantly, and three others were dead by the time they were carried to the top of Riverview Park, where the playground is today.
The eighth child died at Griffin Hospital at 6:45 p.m. The victims included two pairs of siblings, and were between the ages of 8 and 16. They all resided on the hill above Riverview Park – West Street, Wheeler Street, George Street and New Street.
Hundreds gathered at Riverview Park, including many worried parents. Adding to the anguish was the fact some parents waited hours to find out if their child was alive – or not. It was a positively horrific scene.
The engineer of the southbound train died a month later, many said it was of a broken heart. Shelton and the rest of the Valley mobilized to aid the victims’ families.
The railroad is single-tracked in that spot now. It is a quiet, tranquil place between Riverview Park and the Housatonic River. Yet it will be forever haunted by the memories of that horrible summer day that made national news, 75 years ago.
Robert Novak, Jr. is the executive director of the Derby Historical Society.