Dakota Datebook

Runaway Boxcar

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


A Bismarck man endured a frightening ride on this day in 1908. Percy Simpson, a Soo line employee, was working on the roof of the boxcar near Wilton, North Dakota, when the incident occurred. Simpson, a brakeman, had been sent to the top of the car to repair a bent brake shaft.
While Simpson worked atop the car, the rest of the train’s crew began switching at the Wilton interchange. Somehow, the boxcar became unhitched and it rolled onto the main track. Since the bent brake shaft prevented Simpson from pulling the chain and stopping the car, the poor brakeman’s only hope was to hang onto the roof as well as he could. Meanwhile, the rest of the train crew became aware of the runaway, and began pursuit in the locomotive.
Simpson clung to the top of the car, praying that the car would come to a stop, but believing he would not survive the ride. Suddenly, the brakeman saw a small hand car on the track ahead. Simpson braced himself, fully aware the coming collision could derail the car, and at a speed well over sixty miles an hour, the boxcar was already swaying wildly to and fro. With a crash, the two cars collided, but the boxcar slowed little, and it stayed on the track, pushing the hand car. In an act of desperation, Simpson crawled down onto the handcar. He was able to grab a pick axe car and scramble back onto the boxcar. Using the handle from the pick, Simpson manually wound up the brake chain, but it had no effect.. At that point, he simply flattened himself on the top of the car and awaited his fate, but finding it difficult to enjoy the ride that could end in disaster at any moment.
Luckily, the boxcar encountered a hill near Arnold, and slowed. This allowed the train engine to catch up and reattach itself, saving the poor brakeman.

Dakota Datebook written by Jayme L. Job

The Fargo Forum and Daily Republican. Saturday (Evening ed.), Nov. 21, 1908: p.7.

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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