Versailles Rail Accident

The Versailles rail disaster is the first railway accident in France and one of the first in the world.

The Versailles rail accident, occurred on May 8, 1842 in the trench at Meudon Bellevue (between Versailles and Paris), France. Following the King's fete celebrations at the Palace of Versailles, a train returning to Paris crashed at Meudon after the leading locomotive broke an axle. The carriages behind piled into the wrecked engines and caught fire. At least 55 passengers were killed trapped in the carriages, including the explorer Jules Dumont d'Urville. This accident is known in France as the "Catastrophe ferroviaire de Meudon".

On 8 May 1842 Dumont and his family boarded a train from Versailles to Paris after seeing water games celebrating the king. Near Meudon the train’s locomotive derailed, the wagons rolled and the tender’s coal ended up on the front of the train and caught fire. Dumont's whole family died in the flames of the first French railway disaster. Dumont's remains were identified by Dumontier, a doctor on board the ship the Astrolabe and a phrenologist. He had taken a cast of Dumont's head before the accident and was able to recognise his remains by its shape and characteristic lumps. Dumont was buried in Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris. It was an early example of forensic identification. The accident led to the abandonment of the then-common practice of locking passengers in their carriages in France. It was among the first major rail disasters causing multiple deaths.

Within a few months of the English catastrophe of December 24, 1841, there happened in France one of the most famous and most horrible railroad slaughters ever recorded. It took place on the 8th of May, 1842. It was the birthday of the king, Louis Philippe, and, in accordance with the usual practice, the occasion had been celebrated at Versailles by a great display of the fountains. At half past five o'clock these had stopped playing, and a general rush ensued for the trains then about to leave for Paris. That which went by the road along the left bank of the Seine was densely crowded, and so long that two locomotives were required to draw it. As it was moving at a high rate of speed between Bellevue and Meudon, the axle of the foremost of these two locomotives broke, letting the body of the engine drop to the ground. It instantly stopped, and the second locomotive was then driven by its impetus on top of the first, crushing its engineer and fireman, while the contents of both the fire-boxes were scattered over the roadway and among the debris. Three carriages crowded with passengers were then piled on top of this burning mass and there crushed together into each other. The doors of these carriages were locked, as was then and indeed is still the custom in Europe, and it so chanced that they had all been newly painted. They blazed up like pine kindlings. Some of the carriages were so shattered that a portion of those in them were enabled to extricate themselves, but the very much larger number were held fast; and of these such as were not so fortunate as to be crushed to death in the first shock perished hopelessly in the flames before the eyes of a throng of lookers-on impotent to aid.