Weather Window: Nevada train wreck an unsolved mystery |

Weather Window: Nevada train wreck an unsolved mystery

Mark McLaughlinSpecial to the Sun
Nevada Historical Society

HARNEY, Nev. andamp;#8212;At the turn of the 20th century, ruthless tactics by Southern Pacific Railroad against western ranchers and farmers generated deep animosity against the company. Train robberies often drew popular support, while some victims resorted to vandalism and dynamite. But the criminal sabotage claimed by SP to have caused the deadly 1939 Harney, Nev., train wreck exceeded any public retaliation to date. The crash killed 24 and destroyed the City of San Francisco streamliner. Southern Pacific posted a $10,000 reward and assigned Chief Special Agent Dan Oandamp;#8217;Connell to lead the investigation. In statements to the press, Oandamp;#8217;Connell reported the unknown saboteurs had removed spikes from the outside rail, forced it out of position, and then respiked it. Oandamp;#8217;Connell said the vandals knew what they were doing. A signal bond wire connects train rails so if a connection is broken an automatic warning is sent to the locomotive engineer alerting him of trouble on the track ahead. The knowledgeable criminals had carefully spread the rail without breaking the signal wire. They also painted the shiny open rail joint dark green so it would not reflect light and covered the spot with sagebrush. The San Francisco-bound train struck the tweaked track at a mile-a-minute clip. Some survivors of the wreck filed legal proceedings against the railroad. Despite litigation and bad press, Southern Pacific played hard ball with the victims. Passenger F.S. Foote typified the railroadandamp;#8217;s handling of the situation. Foote suffered a broken jaw, broken sternum, four cracked ribs, internal hemorrhaging, a brain concussion, and a punctured lung. SP reimbursed Mr. Foote $7,500 which barely paid for his hospital and medical expenses. In addition, SP also sent Foote $5, which represented the amount he paid for the extra fare to board the luxury streamliner in Chicago. The money came with a note: andamp;#8220;While technically a refund of only the value of the unused portion of the ticket would be in order, we are refunding the full amount of the extra fare due to the interruption to our service. Trust that we shall have the pleasure of serving you in the future.andamp;#8221;In 1977, Southern Pacific Railroad authorized author Don DeNevi permission to review the evidence and archived reports so it might encourage informants to bring forth new details. At that time all relevant physical evidence from the 1939 derailment and investigation was stored in a locked room in the basement of the Southern Pacific building in San Francisco, and the $10,000 reward for the arrest and conviction of the culprits was still in force, in memory of Agent Oandamp;#8217;Connell. Seventy-two years after the deadly wreck, the case has not been solved. After the 1996 merger between Southern Pacific and Union Pacific railroads, the new company moved its San Francisco offices to Omaha and officials are now unaware of what may have happened to the evidence previously stored in the basement. An inquiry by this writer to determine if the $10,000 reward was still in force went unanswered by Union Pacific officials. Apparently, railroad detectives are concerned any publicity related to this case may inspire a copycat crime. As evidence of this possibility, a few weeks after an article about the Harney wreck was published in the October 1995 issue of SP Trainline, a railroad magazine, Amtrakandamp;#8217;s 12-car Sunset Limited was intentionally derailed near Hyde, Ariz.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 This story was adapted from McLaughlinandamp;#8217;s andamp;#8220;Western Train Adventures: The Good, the Bad andamp; the Ugly.andamp;#8221; Mark can be reached at

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