Dakota Datebook

Trainwrecks

Tuesday, November 18, 2003

In November, 1911, trains were making history in North Dakota, but it wasn’t for good reasons.

On November 17th, at McKenzie, nobody realized a switch wasn’t closed all the way because of compacted snow. When a westbound Northern Pacific train came through, the partially open switch caused some of the cars — while remaining connected to each other — to go on one track, others to go on a second track, and yet others to go on a third track.

The engine, a mail car and the front wheels of the baggage car passed safely over the mainline switch, but the rear wheels of the baggage car took the first sidetrack, followed by several passenger coaches. Then three of the coaches took a second sidetrack. The rear sleeper car kept going on the main track. They ran this way – connected but on three separate tracks – for nearly a mile. The cars on the sidetracks, however, finally derailed and ran on the ties. Needless to say, the passengers were pretty badly shaken.

It turns out the coupling pins had pulled out, but the chains had held the cars together until an air hose broke, which caused the brakes to set. The train came to a stop with a derailed car half buried in the sand. Until this point, the engineer didn’t have any idea that anything was wrong. And, remarkably, nobody was hurt.

Unfortunately, that couldn’t be said about a head-on collision of two trains near Rugby a week later when a westbound freight train ran into an eastbound passenger train. The collision happened on a Saturday night at 11:45, killing the engine crew of the passenger train and putting three others in the hospital.

The westbound freight train was supposed to stop at Tunbridge, a station five miles west of Rugby, but a heavy snowstorm made the station invisible, and they missed it. About a mile past the stop, the engineer sensed something was wrong and stopped the train. He was going to back up, but it was too late. He saw the passenger train coming, and he and his crew abandoned the engine. But the crew of the oncoming train wasn’t so lucky. They died without a moment’s warning.

The scene was horrific. Engineer Wright was hurled through the cab window and was scalded to death when the steam boiler burst. Inside, Fireman O’Leary was thrown against the boiler and was buried under the engine’s load of coal. Sadly, the engineer was a noted pioneer, having run the first mail train across the state.

The conductor and engineer of the freight train were blamed and arrested. Engineer Acker was, of course, grief-stricken. He said, “Our train had an ordinary headlight,” he said, “and the passenger had an electric headlight… Had it not been storming so badly, or had our train been equipped with an electric headlight, the passenger crew might have seen us, but as it was, the passenger got within a few feet of us before the crew realized the situation. There was no time whatever for (them) to save themselves.”

Both engines were reduced to piles of twisted iron. Ironically, the site was only six miles from a wreck that had happened two years before, when a mail train crashed into a freight train’s caboose filled with stockmen. In that accident, three were killed and twelve were injured.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

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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