Donner Route Accidents and Other Incidents

Each month our newsletter features a brief description of accidents or incidents that have occurred on the Donner Route.  Below is a summary of those reports.  The list will be updated with new items that appear in the newsletter.

JANUARY 28 1937 A westbound rotary snow plow was rear-ended by a westbound freight at Blue Canon. Both were powered by cab-forward locomotives. The plow had stopped just west of a signal to put out a fire in the plow and build up steam. Weather was snowing and blowing with about 10 feet of snow on the ground. A flagman was posted the proper distance behind the stopped plow. The westbound freight had picked up a relief crew so there were 6 people in the cab. The engineer did try to stop the train when he saw the flagman but the freight hit the stopped plow at approximately 8 MPH, damaging both engines, injuring 6 employees and derailing six cars. The investigation determined the cause to be failure to observe automatic block-signal indications and to obey the stop signals of a flagman. Report provided by Phil Smith from the Tortoise Tattler

From earliest days of operation, wooden snow sheds were a major aid in keeping tracks open over Donner Summit during winter snowstorms, but they were also a fire hazard. The Grass Valley Union included this item in its Dec. 31, 1876 issue: “SNOW SHEDS BURNED – There were 3,100 feet of snow sheds burned, on the Central Pacific Railroad, yesterday morning. The sheds burnt were between Blue Canon and the summit. The result was that the mail train bound West was delayed several hours. The “wreck” was promptly cleared away, and business over the line is now going forward as usual.” An article in the Sacramento Daily Union noted the fire that started near Summit Valley was supposed to have been caused by the locomotive of an eastbound tea train, and nearly 4000 feet of sheds were lost in the extremely hot fire.

In 1898 the boiler of an eastbound train’s lead locomotive exploded as it was passing the Dutch Flat station. The engineer, fireman and an unidentified person were killed by the blast. The explosion also demolished the adjacent saloon, boarding house and depot operated by the Faller family. Three members of the family and one other person were injured by the flying debris.

Newspaper reports documented other locomotive boiler explosions on the Donner Route. On Oct. 15, 1894 the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the head engine of eastbound freight train No. 9 blew up as they were pulling into Colfax. The engineer, fireman and one other person received burns and other injuries but no one was killed. The only damage sustained by the second engine was a broken headlight and cab windows. The grade is slight where the incident occurred, and “no other cause can be assigned to the accident except low water in the boiler.” Not so fortunate were the crew members on a double-header Central Pacific freight train as it neared the Summit in 1879. The Jan. 4, 1879 Grass Valley Union reported that the boiler of one of the locomotives exploded, instantly killing the engineer and fireman. The engineer and fireman of the other locomotive were injured along with three or four others.

Crews on early trains faced many dangers such as climbing to the top of moving cars to check on possible problems or to manually set the brakes before the advent of air brakes. The Nov. 18, 1876 Grass Valley Union gave this report on one near-fatal incident: “Narrow Escape – On Sunday night last, Conductor Webster, of freight train No. 7, had a narrow escape from death. When the train was between Pino and Penryn he attempted to descend from the roof of a box car to the caboose by the caboose ladder, when it broke and he fell, but by good fortune caught hold of the last bar of the ladder on the end of the box car and clung to it, being dragged a long distance. Finally he succeeded in swinging aside sufficiently to be clear of the wheel and let go, being precipitated down an embankment, where he lay stunned for some minutes. After a while he was missed from his train and one of the engines went back from Auburn and took him on board.”

Early in the morning of Nov. 8, 1944, the first section of SP’s westbound Challenger passenger train No. 87 derailed on a curve at Lander about 2 miles west of Colfax. The cab-forward locomotive, two baggage cars and seven coaches left the tracks in a jumble of twisted metal. At least 9 people died in the incident and nearly 100 more were injured of the 800 on the train. On board were many Army and Navy personnel on furlough along with their dependents and other passengers. Survivors credited military personnel with rescuing trapped passengers and assisting with their care until help arrived. Investigators found no evidence of sabotage. The roadbed had apparently been weakened by recent heavy rains, allowing the tracks to spread causing the lead cars to derail and spill down a bank. The engineer was among those killed when he was trapped in the overturned locomotive. Oakland Tribune, 11/9/1944

Early Sabotage? Turntable Accident in Colfax — Sacramento Daily Union, Jan. 24, 1879. “Early yesterday morning, about 1 o’clock, some evil disposed wretch turned a switch at Colfax in such a manner that when the lightning express for Virginia City came along it ran upon the sidetrack leading to the turntable, and before the efforts of the engineer to avert the accident could avail the engine plunged into the turntable pit, smashing the turntable and doing considerable damage to the locomotive. The fireman, John Miller, had one of his feet crushed … The turntable to which the accident occurred has not been used a great deal by the Central Pacific Railroad lately, except for the convenience of work trains, but the Colfax and Nevada narrow-gauge railroad had laid a track upon it, and used it daily.” The Jan. 27 issue reported that Charley Johnson and ___ McNamee had been arrested for the crime. They had been seen in the vicinity and one had a railroad switch key in his possession when arrested.

Landslide on the Central Pacific near Alta – Sacramento Daily Union, Jan. 17, 1894. The first landslide that has taken place on the Sacramento division of the Central Pacific Company for many years occurred between Alta and Towle’s Station about noon yesterday. About one-half of an acre on the mountain side slid upon the railroad track between the two stations. The slide leveled everything in its path, telegraph poles, large trees and survey monuments being entirely swept out of existence. A large force of men was at once ordered to the scene, and efforts are being made to clear the track as speedily as possible. The slide delayed East-bound trains that left the city last night, and the trains due here this morning will also be delayed.

Snowshed Fires – Colfax Sentinel, Oct. 11, 1901 “A fire at Emigrant Gap, October 9th, destroyed thousands of dollars worth of snowsheds of the Southern Pacific Company. The fire started at the station during the afternoon and before 6pm the telegraph office, freight building, section house, new roundhouse turntable, company tool houses and 2,500 feet of sheds were a total loss. The snowsheds were destroyed from a point 300 feet west of the depot on east toward Tunnel No. 2. The fire trains at Summit and Blue Canyon were rushed to the fire, and while timbers were still blazing, trains loaded with ties, steel rails and structural materials were speeding to the scene…by 8am yesterday morning trains were moving… The last fire before the one of this week occurred at Lake View on August 21st, when 3,500 feet of sheds were burned. The work of renewing these sheds has not been completed.”

Heroic Brakeman Prevents Wreck – John Horen Stops Runaway Cars on Colfax Grade and Saves Train. DUTCH FLAT (Placer Co.), June 13. – The steady nerve and heroism of John Horen, a freight brakeman, probably prevented a disastrous wreck last night, when the caboose and several cars of local freight train No. 210 ran down the grade at Toll (sic). The cars were left uncoupled at that place and started down the grade, gaining momentum. Horen stayed with the train and succeeded in stopping it on the Colfax grade after it had attained a speed of more than 60 miles an hour.             Conductor Smith was in charge of the train. It was feared that the cars would collide with No. 2, the limited passenger train. Fortunately the train was a few minutes late. Sacramento Union, 14 June 1913