Nevada’s deadliest railroad catastrophe unsolved 80 years later

Monday marks the 80th anniversary of a major railway disaster in northeastern Nevada that cost two dozen lives and injured at least 100 passengers and crewmen. Even today, it remains our state’s most infamous railroading calamity.

On that summer night in 1939, the nearly new, westbound “City of San Francisco” streamliner derailed in Palisade Canyon, about 35 miles southwest of Elko. The crash demolished a sturdy Humboldt River span and left gruesome residues of jumbled train cars, track, bridge components and bodies in and near the stream.

Passenger A.C. Munger, of Omaha, described the mid-evening tragedy: “I had just gone to bed... Suddenly, there was a violent bump, apparently caused by part of the train leaving the track. This was followed by a succession of bumps and swerving as the cars started piling up in the creek bed...

“It was a terribly lonely spot...” and “an incredible sight to see that big train piled up like matchwood. The steel bridge across which the engine jolted was literally torn to shreds as it was struck by gyrating cars. One piece of bridge steel was thrust clear through one car and came out on the other side. Some of the scenes were ghastly.”

Subsequent rescues and cleanup at the isolated site, as well as construction of a temporary bridge there, required substantial efforts. As a result, the Southern Pacific Railroad (“SP”) — which owned the right of way as well as a share of the sleek passenger train itself — quickly assembled an impressive array of workers and equipment from rail centers both east and west of the wreck scene.

The Sparks contingent included Guido Ceragioli, a 49-year-old Italian immigrant and rail-car repair specialist. Guido’s son Rudy, who was 14 and a half at the time, remembered that event: “My dad was at the wreck site for a couple of weeks. They lived in bunk cars that composed part of the wrecking crew train... By the time the crew from Sparks arrived at the wreck site, most of the dead and all of the injured had been removed.” But the Sparks workers “did find some bodies in the wreckage.”

Meanwhile, SP convened a formal Board of Inquiry hearing in Carlin — the small, dominantly railroading community about 14 miles northeast of the disaster.

Possible reasons suggested for the “City of San Francisco” catastrophe included excessive train speed; an undetected hot-weather “rail kink” or buckling; unintentional track-maintenance lapses; and premeditated rail tampering. Each of the first three alternatives theoretically could have led to an SP cover-up effort; in contrast, the fourth possibility would have constituted malicious sabotage.

SP’s inquiry board concluded that an intentional criminal act had caused the Palisade Canyon wreck. Later, technical experts from the U.S. Interstate Commerce Commission (“ICC”), who also thoroughly investigated the episode, agreed independently that premeditated sabotage was to blame.

On March 3, 1941, in San Francisco, a federal court ruled on behalf of the railroad in response to a damage suit by two passengers. The presiding judge, whose colorful name was Adolphus Frederic St. Sure, said, regarding the passengers’ claim, that “a suggestion so incredible cannot be sustained against the indisputable physical facts and testimony...” This legal opinion set a clear precedent for other wreck-related damage suits that were still pending.

However, alternative views regarding the 1939 pileup contrasted with those of the railroad, the ICC and Judge St. Sure. For example, Howard Hickson, who served as director of the Northeastern Nevada Museum in Elko during 1969-93, wrote a 1980 retrospective about the train crash and its aftermath. In that article, Hickson said that “Although the disaster happened forty years ago, doubt still exists in the minds of many residents of northeastern Nevada as to the true cause... Many local people believe the railroad claimed sabotage to avoid paying millions of dollars in law suits...”

After the Board of Inquiry hearing, SP continued its lengthy and comprehensive investigation, in cooperation with the FBI, which attempted to identify and prosecute the alleged sabotage culprit (or culprits). During that half-decade, more than a thousand people were interviewed, and many dozens of suspects were detained, questioned and then released. But no one was brought to trial.

Even today, eight decades after the Palisade Canyon calamity, an unequivocal conclusion has not been reached regarding the specific cause. Some people decided long ago that railroad negligence was responsible whereas others remain equally adamant that sabotage was to blame (after considerable research, I’m in the latter camp). By now, though, almost all who were directly and intimately involved in the wreck or its resulting investigations are no longer alive to authoritatively defend either claim.

Howard Hickson might have said it best in 1980: “There will always be a big if casting suspicion and doubt on the true cause. If someone had been arrested, charged and convicted, perhaps the controversy would not exist. There are still so many unanswered questions.” And the mystery remains on its 80th birthday next Monday.

Steve VanDenburgh is a 52-year Carson City resident, a mostly retired USGS geoscientist, and a nearly lifelong photographer and railroading enthusiast.


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