Remembering the deadly passenger train wreck of 1951

(Editor’s note: This is part two of an eight-part series to be published once a month, recognizing significant milestones and events over Evanston’s 150-year history.)

Blizzard conditions blanketed Evanston Nov. 12, 1951. Snow covered the ground up to 18 inches deep. It was a near total whiteout and created one of the most tragic events of the 1950s — the collision of two of Union Pacific’s elite Streamliners at the Wyoming/Utah state line, which killed 17 passengers and crew members and injured 159 more.

Passenger trains operated on a published schedule called a timetable. Eastbound passenger trains were identified by even numbers. Freight trains had no timetables. Their movements were controlled by train dispatchers who gave the right of way to passenger trains.

Streamliners leaving Los Angeles and San Francisco met in Ogden, Utah, and proceeded from there to Chicago traveling 10 minutes apart. On this snowy day, the City of Los Angeles No. 104, left Ogden with 53 passengers at 9:45 a.m.

The City of San Francisco departed Ogden with about 150 passengers at 10:07 a.m., 12 minutes late. Engine crews changed in Evanston and engineers were expected to maintain or make up time if their trains were late or be called upon to explain their delay when they reached the next terminal.

Several important factors influenced the accident. A heavy wet snow was falling and there was a strong wind from the west. The temperature was in the 20s. A freight train, Extra 1475 East, consisting of three diesel units and 90 cars was in the siding at Wyuta, which holds 124 cars.

Key to understanding the cause of the accident is the operation of automatic block signals, which act like stoplights along the track governing train movements.

A green light indicates proceed, a yellow light cautions to immediately reduce speed to 20 miles per hour, a red light means stop. No signal is the same as a red signal.

The City of Los Angeles passed Wahsatch at 11:09 a.m., then 8 minutes late. The City of San Francisco passed Wahsatch at 11:21 a.m., only 12 minutes after the City of Los Angeles, but still 10 minutes late. Visibility was restricted to about 200 feet and some block signals were completely covered with snow and ice, making them impossible to see.

All engine crew members are required by rule to call out the signal to the engineer when they see it. Again, no signal means stop. The City of Los Angeles passed the first block signal, slowed at the second block signal, and stopped at the third block signal after it passed Wahsatch.

The slow moving eastbound freight passed Wahsatch only 14 minutes ahead of No. 104, and it was also having trouble seeing the three block signals after leaving Wahsatch. It stopped and entered the center siding at Wyuta to allow the Streamliners to pass. No. 104 stopped at the west end of the siding because the crew could not see the signal.

It then carried on to the next signal, where it stopped because they could not see that signal either.

After its last stop at signal 9214, No.104 immediately started moving again. As it started moving, it was struck by No. 102, The City of San Francisco.

The City of San Francisco had observed the reduced speed limit passing Wahsatch, then slowed to 30 mph and then over the next 4 miles increased speed to 77 mph. The fireman said he could not see through the snow on his windshield and could not see a signal less than a mile down track. Both of the other two crew members in the cab called the signals clear. But because the track curved to the left, No. 104’s oscillating red light was blocked until No. 102 was right on top of it.

The collision occurred before the speed of the closing train had been reduced. The engineer, Rees Paul, 62, of Evanston, was killed instantly. The maintainer, Norman Evans, and fireman, John Branstitter, of Evanston, were removed by rescuers. Evans later died at the hospital. Paul’s body was still pinned in the shattered cab at nightfall, six hours after the crash.

The force of No. 102 crashing at 77 mph into the City of Los Angeles split the rear observation car down the middle as if it had been opened by a can opener. The lead diesel unit of No. 102 weighed more than 400,000 pounds. The passengers sitting in the luxurious surroundings of the club car at 11:27 a.m. must have been horrified when they looked up to see the City of San Francisco speeding toward them.

The impact of the collision derailed eight cars of the freight train in the siding. All 12 cars of No. 104 were derailed and the last three cars were completely demolished. The engineer of No. 104, D. Kellher of Evanston, and the conductor, J.A. Barnes of Ogden, were not injured. Many of the passengers on the devastated City of Los Angeles were doctors returning to Chicago from an American College of Surgeons conference in Southern California.

The severely injured were taken to the hospital in Evanston, the walking wounded were taken to the American Legion hall, where beds and food were provided by local volunteers. The 4,000 residents of Evanston tirelessly brought out volunteers to help.

The Interstate Commerce Commission found engineer Rees Paul was at fault for running a caution signal and a red block signal that he could not see. That is a fact. The “why” will never be known.

The engine crew called the signals clear. They were not clear, so why were they called? Engineer Paul would have known that Kellher was the engineer on the train ahead. Did that have anything to do with his judgment that No. 104 would not be stopped ahead? Was he intent on trying to make up some of the 12 minutes he was behind?

Paul was a highly respected engineer with decades of experience. He was known to be very dependable. Had he been able to see the signal, he would not have come close to a collision with the City of Los Angeles.

The City of San Francisco seemed to be a train of bad luck. On Jan. 13, 1952, only two months after it rammed into the City of Los Angeles, it was stranded for four days on Donner’s pass with 226 passengers. Snow drifts were 12 feet high and winds blew at 90 mph.

Railroad snow blowers were unable to reach them and provisions had to be dropped by helicopter. Eventually, they were rescued without loss of life and few serious injuries.

The last Streamliner operated by Union Pacific left Chicago, westbound, as the City of Los Angeles on May 1, 1971. The era of luxurious train travel came to an end.


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