Saturday, May 4, 2013

Danger Stalks the Railroad Tracks

Going through old newspapers definitely gives you an idea about what the dangers of the time were. The 1930's Campbell newspapers were filled with harrowing stories of car crashes and cars getting hit by trains. When I was searching the 1903 Evening News articles for any mention of a fire at A. & C. Ham Packing, there were lots of stories of injuries, deaths, and near-deaths from spooked horses and trains. Needless to say, I was a bit more interested in the train stories, and was surprised how many stories were about injuries or near-injuries to the workers in the railroad yards.

The breathless "locomotive kills railroad worker" stories, apart from hinting at the danger of railroading at the turn of the century, are also interesting for hints about how trains operated back then.

Narrow Gauge and Standard Gauge Train Nearly Collide in Los Gatos For example, the Monday, June 22, 1903 San Jose Evening News mentions a near-collision between a broad-gauge and narrow-gauge train. In this case, a standard-gauge train coming from the picnic grounds at Sunset Park (high up in Los Gatos Canyon beyond the summit tunnel at Wrights) left Los Gatos headed downhill at the same time that the narrow-gauge train to Santa Cruz left Campbell. Luckily, the two trains saw each other and were able to stop before colliding.

Part of the problem might have been the recent completion of the standard gauge track to Wrights - that is, taking the existing narrow gauge tracks with rails three feet apart, and adding an additional rail 56.5 inches away so both narrow and standard gauge trains could use the tracks. The April 14, 1903 Evening News had reported two months before that the conversion was almost complete to Wrights. It had been a substantial job - widening cuts, strengthening bridges, and daylighting a tunnel in Los Gatos Canyon two miles above Los Gatos. The crews were probably still getting used to the idea of checking both the standard and narrow gauge timetables for conflicting trains.

Standard-gauging the whole railroad from San Jose to Santa Cruz would take a few more years; the cutover was planned for April 18, 1906, but the Great San Francisco Earthquake destroyed the summit tunnel and delayed standard gauging for another three years.

Track Worker Falls Under Train, Killed Later that same evening, a track worker fell underneath railroad cars at Campbell when the car he was sitting on was recoupled to the train. Nicola Caravello was a new immigrant from Italy who'd only been in the United States for two years. Caravello's death made it to the front page, and because of the local interest was featured high on the front page, well above an update on Saturday's wreck in Marin County at Point Reyes Station on the North Shore / North Pacific Coast railroad. That wreck, which one of the books on the North Pacific Coast, labels the worst accident on the road, injured 29 and killed two when a funeral train going too fast left the tracks on a sharp curve.

One possible reason for the gravel train might have been for work on the San Francisco-San Jose main line. A May 22, 1903 Evening News article notes that progress on double-tracking the San Francisco to San Jose main line is going well:

Five gravel trains now play between here [San Jose] and Palo Alto with ballast for the double track which is fast approaching San Jose. Men are being constantly added to the gangs and the work of completion is being rushed.
The gravel pits along Los Gatos Creek south of San Jose would have been a good source of gravel for the new line, and Caravello's death would fit with lots of new employees and rushed work.

Commute Train Engine Falls Over at Narrow Gauge Depot The May 22, 1903 Evening News reported on the Friday afternoon San Francisco to Los Gatos passenger train's locomotive derailing and falling over on its side. The rather embarrassing accident occurred just as the train reached the old narrow gauge station where Diridon station now sits. It was also a very public and visible wreck, entertaining hundreds of witnesses at the station and on nearby streets. A rider on the Santa Clara St. streetcar reported:

Our car had just stopped at the crossing [on the Alameda] to allow the Los Gatos train to pass. It was nearly half past one when the train pulled into view around the bend from San Francisco. Just as the engine pulled past the ice plant [at Julian St., one block up] within plain sight of where we were standing it jumped the track and commenced bumping along the ties in a cloud of dust and debris. After running a short distance the engine toppled slowly over on its side burrowing its nose into the loose dirt and snorting and hissing a last gasp.
Obviously folks were a lot more jaded then, for this article was buried on page 5. If a Caltrain engine flopped over on its side within sight of Diridon station today, we'd have news helicopters circling endlessly and declaring the immense danger of commuting by rail. The San Jose Evening News of the time thought the following stories more important than a locomotive falling over:
  • Balloon (oops, "airship") exhibition at Longchamps, France.
  • Child in Illinois may lose his tongue after licking ammonia pipe at new ice plant.
  • Local horse and buggy thief captured in Monterey.
  • San Francisco Chronicle declares that prune crop looks good.
  • Washington D.C.: Experimental subjects testing preserved and adulterated meat go on strike because of too much borax'ed meat.
  • Girl in Indiana shot by jealous lover.
  • Boy burglars captured after several robberies in San Jose, and caught at the broad gauge depot.
  • Hogs in Dixon, California eat suicide. 

  • ...and several other stories that obviously were more interesting than a railroad locomotive flipping over on its side right there in the middle of town.

I was surprised by the idea of a mid-afternoon Los Gatos train - most of the timetables I saw showed only a single Los Gatos commute train from San Francisco, but the SP's handy timetable in the day's paper showed five trains to Los Gatos at 9:48 am, 10:20 am, 1:35 pm, 4:21 pm, and 6:20pm, with a train to Campbell and New Almaden at 4:45 pm only. Switching Campbell on my layout would be a lot more interesting if the crews had to get out of the way of passenger trains that often.

Trouble at the Market Street Station Some of the stories hint at how the railroad was was operated. For example, the old Market Street station north of downtown had tracks which crossed several busy downtown streets. There was also a sharp curve where the tracks joined Fourth Street so the mainline to Los Angeles could run down the middle of the street past San Jose State. Some of the switching movements - such as assembling the commute trains for San Francisco - would have requires a switch engine to pull cars along that Fourth Street curve. But that sharp curve and the street running would have made all the crews especially vigilant, right?

Uh, no.

Engines in a Collision: Smashup at Second Street Crossing This Morning The Evening News on July 9, 1903 leads with the breathless "Engineer and Firemen Jump for their Lives" article:

A fast manifest freight from Gilroy crashed into a switch engine at the Second Street crossing of the Southern Pacific at 5:40 this morning and a serious wreck resulted. The freight was pulling into the station at a high rate of speed concealed from view by the sharp curve at Second Street. The switch engine was upon the same track and proceeding slowly in the opposite direction.
Suddenly the freight pulled into view and bore down upon the switch engine with a speed which made the avoidance of a collision an impossibility. The trainmen realized their danger and after reversing their engines jumped to the ground.
The locomotives came together with a resounding crash which nearly demolished the light engine and severely damaged the other… the crippled engines were towed to the roundhouse and the broken wood and other evidences of the accident were removed.
So why was the switch engine pulling cars so far east? I haven't seen any good maps of the San Jose yards as of 1905, but the 1915 Sanborn map shows that most of the freight yards were west of San Pedro St., while a small passenger yard existed right behind the depot between San Pedro and First Street. Now, a 5:40 am train crew might have been switching boxcars from the east end of the yard or from the packing houses along the tracks, or they could have been putting together the first commute trains of the day. My first guess would be they were a crew with passenger cars, but another story from a year later suggests both are possible.

Trains Crash Together At The Broad Gauge Depot The November 3, 1904 Evening News again buries a story on page three when a switch engine crew blocked the main line in front of the station just as a freight train arrives from Salinas in the late afternoon. We know the switch engine was pulling from the east end because both engines touched in the crash.

Owing to the carelessness of an engineer in charge of a switch engine which was making up a train of freight cars at the broad cage depot last evening a collision took place with the way freight from Salinas. The freight train had the right of way and the engineer of the switch engine whose name was Tescheran had orders to run his cars on another track. Owing to his slowness the freight bore down and the engines crashed together… The wreck was cleared away in about an hour and a half and caused no interruption of regular traffic. The accident took place at about 4:30 p.m. None of the trainmen was hurt.
New Buildings at Market Street The awkwardness which might have caused the first near-miss at Los Gatos might have encouraged some of the problems at the Market Street Depot. A October 11, 1902 article describes more work needed for the double-tracking as workers moved telegraph poles away from the depot and built an additional track at the station. There's also rumors of a new building for Wells Fargo and a dining room for tourists which as far as I know was never built.

There were other stories - railroad men pinned between trains or hit by a moving freight car in the yard, but all the stories hinted that the railroads were a lot faster and looser with operations at the turn of the century than in the 1930's. With each of those accidents and news reports, we learn a bit more about how the trains were operating in the last century.

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