In the year 1878, there was great rivalry between the New England coastal cities of Portland and Boston. In those days, the best rowers raced for prize money. Michael Davis of Portland had already defeated one famous Boston rower, George Faulkner, on the Charles River in front of 30,000 cheering spectators. When a race was arranged between Davis and Boston’s best rower Patrick Reagan, the excitement was comparable to a championship prizefight. A neutral location was needed, and Silver Lake, about thirty miles south of Boston was chosen. A special train was chartered to help transport the rowers and thousands of spectators from Boston to Silver Lake, and it was crammed full with fans from both cities.
The boats they used were the racing shells or "sculls" of the period. Reagan's boat was most likely the typical sliding seat variety, whereas Davis had been experimenting with sliding riggers, which is probably what he was using on that day.
The race was 2 miles out to a stake, around the stake, then back to the starting line. Stake races were popular in those days, because the spectators could see both the start and the finish. Davis won by a large margin, and the results were challenged with a claim that Reagan was fouled at the turning stake. Fights broke out, but eventually the bets were paid. Reagan had bet all his family’s assets on the race and was now broke.
Sick with exhaustion from the race and with the knowledge that his family lost everything, he was carried back to the train. That evening the train filled with passengers including Reagan headed back to Boston, while Davis stayed behind, celebrating his victory with friends and admirers. An open switch at a sidetrack caused the returning train to derail. Railroad employees on a freight train waiting on the sidetrack saw the accident happen and sped off toward Boston to get help. To get more speed, they unhitched their freight cars. The unhitched cars rolled back down the tracks, smashing into the derailed train, compounding the disaster.
Reagan and 18 other passengers were killed, and more than 190 others injured, making it the worst train disaster in New England history.