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The Wreck of Freight No. 116

Eastbound Passenger No. 6 from Deadwood was running late on Thursday, June 25, 1908 and had not yet reached Chadron. On a normal schedule, Freight No. 116 departed the Chadron yards immediately after No. 6, but on this particular night it was permitted to pull out ahead of the delayed passenger to begin its journey east. The doubleheader freight with locomotive #229 in the lead and #9 trailing, pulled thirty cars of mixed freight. The consist that evening was mostly boxcars loaded with lumber from the Black Hills or cars loaded with coal from Wyoming to be dropped off at various towns down the line. Engineer James W. Pace was in the lead locomotive with fireman James A. Harris. The second locomotive held engineer Willis A. Graham along with fireman August Meyers and brakeman Fred Ebener. Conductor Walter White and brakeman James L. Gier, were at the rear of the train in the caboose. An estimated ten to fifteen tramps also rode the late night train on the bumpers (couplers) between the cars, underneath on the truss rods, and few luckier ones managed to find open doors on boxcars. Nearly every tramp was riding near the front of the train.


At Rushville, 31 miles out, the trainmen were given orders to watch for a heavy storm to the east. The train briefly encountered heavy rain and hail and slowed as a precaution. Seven miles later, around 12:30 a.m., No. 116 made a brief stop in Clinton to switch a few cars. There was an eerie feeling as the storm had just passed that location and the air was calm. The sky was clearing and stars were beginning to show through the broken clouds. It had rained for nearly three hours straight and distant lightning illuminated the darkness. The first wave of storms brought rain and hail from the north. Then, a second wave of heavy rain and hail came from the south. In Clinton, water was everywhere and some houses were flooded. Windows on both sides of several buildings were broken out by the hail. Many of the town’s 100 residents were outside assessing the storm damage as No. 116 switched cars onto the side track. One tramp named Smith decided to get a quick drink at the local saloon that was not yet closed for the night. As the train pulled out, this tramp missed catching his previous location at the front of the train as it departed. However, he was able to climb aboard one of the rear cars where a Negro tramp was riding alone. Meanwhile, Passenger No. 6 departed Chadron and made up time as it traveled east not far behind the freight.

As No. 116 pulled out of Clinton just before 1:00 a.m. on June 26, those in the locomotives saw the backside of the storm ahead through distant flashes of lightning. Approximately two miles east of town, the train picked up speed on a slight downhill slope as it neared a low area filled during the construction of the grade. A short while earlier, torrents of water, mixed with a slurry of hail and debris from adjacent fields, had pushed toward the railroad through a swale that was normally dry. Engineer Pace mentioned to Harris that they were going to go right through the center of the storm. Harris shoveled a few more loads of coal into the locomotive. It was their last conversation.

As the newly formed river reached the railroad near milepost 365.4, the grade created a dam which caused the water to back up. The lone culvert, with only a 36-inch opening, quickly filled with debris and became blocked. The water, with nowhere else to go, began flowing over the top of the grade.

With no rock ballast to help secure the sandy ground around the rails and ties, the water washed out fifty feet of track around the culvert as well as a similar length just east of the culvert. By some estimates, the depth of the washout was fifteen feet. The rails and ties hung loosely in the air as No. 116 approached in darkness unaware of what lie ahead.

Without warning, the lead locomotive plunged into the first washout, hitting the embankment between the two holes. The trailing locomotive telescoped into the top of the first locomotive. Due to the speed involved, the first thirteen boxcars, those where most of the tramps were riding, smashed with tremendous force in rapid succession onto and around the locomotives. Several of the wooden cars were reduced to splinters. Massive piles of coal from the tenders and coal cars surrounded the wreckage and buried some of the victims. Some cars were nearly submerged below the swirling water and ice. The hail from the nearby fields was said to have been floating on top of the water to a depth of several feet. The field next to the track became a lake three to five feet deep and only the tops of the posts were visible along the right-of-way fence .

Conductor White immediately ran from the caboose past a few flat cars and climbed up the last boxcar. He then ran on top of the cars to the front of the train to offer assistance. Brakeman Gier ran back west to flag down the approaching passenger train. Both men had been thrown to the floor from their seats in the cupola, but escaped injury. The two tramps who rode near the rear of the train, Smith and the Negro, assisted Conductor White, but there was little the three men could do in the confusion of darkness and swirling water. When Passenger No. 6 arrived at the scene, men and women came forward with extra lanterns to offer assistance. Most individuals were horrified and could not bear to be near the site. Upon impact, engineer Pace was thrown through the cab window of the lead locomotive and into water up to his neck. Miraculously, he only lost a finger and smashed another on his right hand. He also had a severe scalp wound, but was able to swim away from the wreckage.

Fireman Harris, who was with Pace, was found partly submerged in the water, lying about twelve feet from the track near one of the tenders. He had a badly broken leg which was nearly severed between the knee and thigh. Harris was in extreme agony with severe internal injuries, but he was still alive.

Three agonizing hours passed before a wrecking crane arrived from Chadron. Passenger No. 6 hooked up to the rear of No. 116 and pulled the remaining portion back west to Clinton to the side track. This allowed the crane to pass through and get close to the wreckage before No. 6 returned to the site.

Once the task of pulling apart the mangled mass of iron and wood began, the bodies were removed from the second engine. The lifeless body of engineer Graham was found crushed and completely burned beyond recognition. A short while later as the morning light arrived, the scalded bodies of fireman Meyers and brakeman Ebener were recovered.

Next came the removal of the bodies of the tramps who were also crushed and burned. One tramp who had escaped sudden death, directed those working the crane to remove various parts of the wreckage that were pinning him down. When he was finally freed, he talked to his rescuers and said “I am not hurt”. Minutes later he closed his eyes and died. Fireman Harris was initially taken east to Gordon where local doctors decided the best course would be to amputate his mangled leg. A doctor with the railroad arrived who challenged their diagnosis and stated Harris’s leg would not be removed.

He took Harris back to the wreck where an engine and car from Chadron came to transport him and ten bodies of the deceased crew and tramps back to Chadron. The engine arrived back at Chadron at 11:00 a.m. Friday morning, ten hours after the crash occurred. The bodies were wrapped in sheets and spread out in a row on the ground outside the station. Harris’s condition deteriorated, so he was taken to the hospital at Hot Springs, South Dakota. Despite receiving medical attention, Harris died of his injuries Saturday evening. The number of deaths had been confirmed at eleven after the second day.

As the day progressed, westbound Passenger No. 5 from Norfolk arrived and stopped at the east side of the wreckage. Local farmers used their horses and wagons to transfer travelers, baggage, and mail from the cars of each passenger train across the slowly receding channel of water, still too deep to cross on foot. The transfer of passengers required four hours to complete. Both trains then backed up, each covering the other’s route. An extra No. 6 was made up at Long Pine, leaving that location on schedule.

Throughout the day on Friday, workers built a shoefly track around the wreckage as the water continued to recede. Others moved the wrecked locomotives and cars off to the side and rebuilt the track. Large crowds from Gordon, Clinton, and Rushville gathered around the site to watch the cleanup. The lead engine was taken to Gordon on Tuesday and the second locomotive followed the next day. Both were then brought back to Chadron to be rebuilt or to remove salvageable parts. By mid week, a pile driver arrived and constructed a bridge at the location of the washed out culvert.

By July 7, a few newspapers who were still following the incident, reported that a total of 13 men died in the wreck - four trainmen and nine tramps. The actual number of tramps who died may never be known. Apparently, the body of at least one tramp was later recovered in a field several miles from the wreck. The deceased had been carried away by the rushing water.

Today, the bridge that replaced the culvert reveals no indication that anything ever occurred at that location. The last train passed over the bridge in 2006 when the Nebkota Railroad ceased operations from Rushville to Merriman, a portion that survived the 1992 abandonment between Norfolk and Merriman. The rails are now gone, but the bridge remains as part of the undeveloped Cowboy Trail.

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