Dakota Datebook

Empire Builder Train Wreck

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

 

 

 

The worst rail disaster in North Dakota history happened at 7:20 p.m. on this date in 1945 in the town of
Michigan, about 50 miles west of Grand Forks. Two Empire Builder trains were traveling west as a pair.
The first section contained the Pullman sleeper cars and the second carried coach cars. The two trains
had left Fargo about 10 minutes apart. With World War II winding down, the passengers were almost all
military men and women.

The first engine had developed a “hot box” – a wheel bearing that was burning out. With smoke
billowing from the tender, there was no choice; the train had to be stopped. In fact, it stopped three
times – twice in and near Petersburg, where signals were left to warn the second train. The following
engineer slowed for a number of miles, but then resumed normal speed of 55 miles an hour. When he
came upon the stalled train, the engineer hit the emergency brakes and turned off all power, slowing to
30 before impact.

The only eyewitness was Annette Desautels, who had just gotten off work at the Red Owl. “…when I got
to the Great Northern tracks,” she said, “I…wondered why the train had stopped there, since the Empire
Builder never makes a stop at Michigan… I could hear the shrill whistle of a second train coming…then I
saw a railroad man with a red flag … run back down the track a ways, then frantically attempt to flag the
oncoming train.”

There was no time for the second train to stop. The engine plunged into the rear car, sending it skyward
and splitting it down the middle. One serviceman saw the second train coming and jumped out a
window. The remaining 34 occupants of the car were either killed instantly or overcome by steam
escaping from the engine.

Within minutes, the people of Michigan began rescue efforts. Three welders, one from Tolna and two
from Michigan, went for their equipment. Ladders were brought, and the job of cutting through the
steel and rubble began. As dark came on, people lined up their cars, aiming their headlights on the
wreck until alternative lighting could be rigged. People provided coffee and food, and others provided
space and typewriters for reporters.

A 20 year-old porter from St. Paul was named several times for his heroic attempts to save the lone
person found alive, trapped in the wrecked car. He supported the woman’s head while a priest
performed last rites. After more than six hours, she was finally freed, but died in the ambulance 15
minutes later.

Amazingly, the engine crew survived.

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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