Weather Window | Nevada Train Wreck: An unsolved mystery andamp;#8212; Part Two |

Weather Window | Nevada Train Wreck: An unsolved mystery andamp;#8212; Part Two

Courtesy Nevada Historical SocietyNearly all of the fatalities occurred in the train cars that crashed into the Humboldt River bed.

TAHOE/TRUCKEE andamp;#8212; Chief Engineer Ed Hecox was alone at the throttle of Southern Pacific’s luxury streamliner, City of San Francisco, when it derailed 72 years ago just east of Harney, Nevada. As the lead engine rapidly approached a bridge over the Humboldt River on August 12, 1939, the wheels passed over a clump of sagebrush lodged against the outside rail, and suddenly the train came off the tracks.The forward locomotives slid off the rails, plunged across the bridge, then plowed through the wooden track ties and rock ballast before coming to a stop upright well past the river. Out of control, the streamliner’s coaches snapped their connections with the engines and slammed into the old iron bridge. The violent destruction lasted less than a minute, but the worst train wreck in Nevada history killed 24 passengers and crewmembers and injured 121 others. Only 31 escaped unscathed.Once all of the injured passengers and crewmembers were rushed to hospitals in Ogden, Utah, Reno, Nev., and Berkeley, Calif., Southern Pacific officials began their investigation into the cause of the wreck. Many passengers blamed Hecox for going too fast to make up time, but the veteran engineer swore he was traveling at a safe speed when the train derailed. From the outset, company officials contended that sabotage was the cause of the derailment. Dan O’Connell, chief special agent for the SP out of San Francisco, stated that at the site of the derailment the spikes had been pulled out of a 30-foot section of rail, the rail then forced about 5 inches inward and then the track respiked. Rumors quickly circulated that SP was claiming sabotage to cover up reckless operation in order to avoid legal liability, but O’Connell ignored the accusations of a cover-up and launched a massive investigation, the most intensive in U.S. railroad history.In statements to the press, Detective O’Connell reported; andamp;#8220;First we wanted to ascertain exactly what had derailed the locomotive and train. Once we were certain that it had been a deliberate act of vandalism, we were anxious to learn exactly how it had been accomplished, and then concentrate on a search to discern who had perpetrated the disaster.andamp;#8221; To increase public interest and help in the investigation, SP posted a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the vandals; it was later increased to $10,000.Not everyone was buying the hype about the derailment being the work of mysterious saboteurs. A week after the derailment, an article published in the Reilly’s Free Press showed no love for the railroad and opined that the investigation was a cover-up: andamp;#8220;Until the recent terrible train wreck in Nevada, few people knew that one of the main items of railroading is running newspapers. But the blazing headlines, sensational fake stories of sabotage, twisting of rails, spiking down rails, maniac sadist wreckers proves that the andamp;#8216;news’ was manufactured to fit the railroad’s orders.andamp;#8221;O’Connell’s investigation was massive. Witness tips poured in as citizens hoped to cash in on the $10,000 reward. On August 14, 1939, the Nevada State Journal reported; andamp;#8220;Last seen in the region of Fernley was a andamp;#8216;man with mangled ears,’ whose clothing was covered with dust of the type found at the scene of the tragedy.andamp;#8221; The so-called andamp;#8220;earlessandamp;#8221; man, Bob LaDucuer, was one of 93,110 men interrogated over the next six months. All were cleared. The outbreak of World War II in 1941 took SP agents off active pursuit, but O’Connell never let up andamp;#8212; by the time he retired in 1944, he and his men had interviewed or studied reports on 210,437 suspects! Despite this incredibly intense and widespread criminal investigation, SP has never prosecuted anyone for the crime and the $10,000 reward was never claimed. Stay tuned for the conclusion.andamp;#8212; Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at can reach him at

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