Before it was history it was news: 20 KNOWN DEAD IN TRAIN WRECK
Elko Daily Free Press
Before it was history ... it was news
This is one in a sesquicentennial series of Nevada newspaper front pages telling the history of the state in the words of the people who were there.
The stories reprinted here are reproduced as faithfully as possible — punctuation, grammatical errors and all — to retain the flavor of the era in which they were published.
— Barry Smith, Nevada Press Association
EXTRA! Elko Daily Free Press, Aug. 13, 1939
Twenty persons are known to be dead as a result of the worst train wreck in the history of Nevada, 40 miles west of Elko on the Southern Pacific main line last night 9:33 o’clock. Seventeen of these bodies have been recovered and three are visible but cannot be moved until the cars are taken from the river bed of the Humboldt river.
The injured were placed at 50 and some were rushed to Elko and others taken to Sparks in a special Southern Pacific rescue train five hours after the crash. Train of 17 cars had a capacity of 220 people and it was understood all reservations were taken.
As rescue work was rushed T. J. Foley, assistant superintendent of the Southern Pacific, J. H. Mahan, Southern Pacific traffic agent and Southern Pacific Roadmaster Williamson declared the wreck was clearly case of sabotage with murder intended.
They showed this writer where an entire rail had been moved four inches inward, thus causing a derailment of the flying City of San Francisco. Those doing the job of moving the plate inward had spiked it to the track again. They had removed all of the inside spikes so that the engine left the track when it struck this rail about one hundred feet in front of bridge through which five cars plunged, carrying most of the victims to their death. The bond wire on the track had been kept intact by the sabotagers to that the signal was still in the clear.
The last train over the track had passed about four hours before and Roadmaster Williamson said it would take a strong man working fast to do the job in an hour causing the derailment.
E. F. Hecox, engineer of the City of San Francisco since its inception three years ago, declared he saw a green tumble weed upon the track at the point where the tie plate had been moved in, forcing the track out of line. The engine left the track at that point and went several hundred feet, continuing without turning over.
The two cars immediately behind the engine were the power cars and they stayed upright. The next was the baggage car, which turned over and the fourth was the chaircar, which also turned over, but which killed no one. This section of the train was hurtled down the track as the train broke into as it crossed the bridge, with the club car striking the bridge and tearing giant girders into ribbons. This car was gutted and bodies of passengers who had been playing cards were torn beyond recognition, some of them hurtling 100 feet into the willows skirting the river.
It was from the club car and the diner that the greatest number of dead resulted, although most of the victims were thrown from the club car, while the diner car victims were jammed into one end, most of the negro help, where they had apparently been collected in the kitchen following the evening meal.
Engineer Hecox declared that as soon as he passed the point where he saw tumble weed he felt tracks begin to give. He was proceeding at 60 miles an hour when the wreck occurred, he said, as this is a restricted area through the canyon.
Five cars were piled in jumbled mass, where the bridge gave way. One of these rested upon a victim whose arms were visible, but it was impossible to remove him. Parts of bodies were strewn along right-of-way and victims were so badly mutilated that identification was impossible in many instances.
Behind these five cars was the reminder of the train of of five cars, with two of these off the track and the other three remaining in place before the point where the alleged sabotage was to have been committed.
Steep embankments along the tracks at the wreck point made rescue work difficult. However, doctors and nurses were rushed from all nearby cities and opiates were administered where it was possible to alleviate the pain.
Those effecting rescue praised the courage of the injured persons. There was little hysteria and the injured remained calm, without complaining. Darkness hampered rescue work.
E. A. Betts, research professor of Penn States, was in the club car three minutes before the tragedy.
“I was watching some of my friends playing cards. Suddenly I remembered I wanted something at the rear of the train and left them. There were 53 persons in that car. All of a sudden the lights went off. Then there was a terrific crash. I missed death by three minutes.”
Of the 53 persons in that car four were killed and four were injured. Others escaped miraculously.
Robert Schmidgall of Chicago, auto electric worker, was in the chair car where none was killed. “The train hit the ties before we reached the bridge. Sparks began to fly and I thought there was another train bumping us. Ours was the last car to get across. I gropped my way out and went to the bridge where I heard negroes groaning. One had both his legs broken, but he showed plenty of pluck.
Western Pacific tracks parallel the Southern Pacific’s at that point and paths were cut down steep embankment so that stretcher bearers could carry the wounded to a position where they could be placed in the rescue train and carried to Elko for hospitalization. Some seriously hurt, with doubt expressed as to their recovery.
There was a natural lack of organization shortly after the wreck and local officers were present to do what they could to aid in the work. Night Officers John Nichol, H. A. McMurtrey, Deputy Sheriff S. O. Guidici, District Attorney C. B. Tapscott were among those present rendering every possible assistance, while scores of others entered willingly into the task of assisting the injured and recovering the dead.
Doctors A. J. Hood, Les Moren, F. M. Poulson, C. E. Secor, R. P. Roantree, Foster H. Krug and doctors from nearby cities were seen at the wreck by these reporters. They arrived at the scene early and alleviated pain by applying opiates.
J. W. P. Glasgow, traffic expert from Pueblo, Colo., who is visiting Elko aided in organization work, with the assistance of William Van Volkenberg, former officer in this city.
Bandages were secured from every source and druggists of various communities cooperated to the fullest in getting medicines to the scene. Residents of Carlin were among the first to be there, while Beowawe people were also present shortly after the tragedy was broadcast.
Many women, some of them nurses, were among those rendering aid to the injured, while everyone present, with the exception of a few cooperated fully.
Looting of some of the cars and luggage was reported, but officers soon put a stop to this.
The wreck is located about one and a quarter miles east of Harney, small siding on the Southern Pacific. Autoisist were forced to leave their cars at this point and walk to the wreckage because of the narrow canyon.
Traffic was being routed over the Western Pacific and it is believed several months will elapse before the bridge can be replaced, as it is a twisted mass of steel.
The track in that section is in especially good condition and Southern Pacific officials pointed to the fact that the bridge is regularly inspected and that it carries trains of much greater weight than the City of San Francisco.
(Editor’s Note: Today is the 75th anniversary of when this article was published.)