Weather Window: Train wreck, an unsolved mystery in the Nevada desert |

Weather Window: Train wreck, an unsolved mystery in the Nevada desert

San Francisco Public Library/Submitted to aedgett@City of San Francisco power units, circa 1938.

TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. and#8212; Despite an extensive investigation by law enforcement and Southern Pacific detectives, the deadly train wreck that tore apart the luxury streamliner City of San Francisco in central Nevada 73 years ago remains unsolved. Depending on whom you want to believe, the tragedy was either the result of the engineer speeding too fast for the tracks, or according to Southern Pacific railroad officials, a deliberate and murderous act of sabotage. The mystery of what really happened at Harney, Nev., has never been solved, but these facts are indisputable.

In August 1939, the most tragic railroad disaster in Nevadaand#8217;s history killed 24 people and destroyed Southern Pacificand#8217;s finest passenger train.

At its inauguration on Jan. 2, 1938, the City of San Francisco, was deemed the and#8220;worldand#8217;s most superlative train.and#8221; The sleek streamliner consisted of deluxe sleepers and coaches loaded with amenities, with motive power supplied by six 900-horsepower engines. A technological marvel in engineering that cost $2 million to build, she was proclaimed the and#8220;largest, fastest, most beautiful, powerful, and luxurious streamliner ever designed.and#8221; The elegant train pulled 17 coaches instead of the normal 11, and was capable of speeds in excess of 100 mph. When placed into service, the hi-tech train cut 19 hours from the fastest previous time on its route between Chicago and Oakland, Calif.

Like the pioneers and wagon trains before it, the transcontinental railroad followed the Humboldt River as it meandered west across Nevada. But instead of a farm wagon hitched behind plodding oxen, the City of San Francisco raced over the high desert at speeds averaging between 75 and 110 mph. On Saturday, Aug. 12, 1939, the setting sun glinted off the City of San Franciscoand#8217;s silver metallic skin as it streaked across the desert. Outside it was blistering hot, but passengers aboard the air-conditioned streamliner took no notice as they enjoyed dinner, cocktails, or cards. Chief Engineer Ed Hecox, one of SPand#8217;s top locomotive engineers, confidently manned the throttle. Hecox, 65 years old and up for retirement, had been hired by Southern Pacific as a steam fireman when he was 29, and now had 36 years and more than a million miles under his belt. SP often called upon the veteran engineer for special speed tests and demonstration runs, and had assigned him to the City of San Francisco as soon as it was built.

The train stopped briefly at the little town of Carlin and once all was ready Hecox throttled the powerful streamliner into motion. The track followed the Humboldt River into the west end of Paradise Canyon where it approached bridge No. 4 that spanned the river. Always alert, Hecox noticed a clump of sagebrush lodged against the outside rail but thought little of it. and#8220;We were doing 60 at the time, hitting the milepost on the head, just 17 miles out of Carlin and three hours to Sparks,and#8221; he later recalled. and#8220;Nevada is full of tumbleweed, sagebrush and jackrabbits, but you donand#8217;t stop a streamliner for a clump of tumbleweed.and#8221; But as soon as the lead locomotives reached that part of the track the train derailed. Miraculously, the front engines crossed the bridge upright without striking the infrastructure. Hecox, his fireman, and two diesel technicians escaped unscathed because momentum had forced the forward power units over the bridge safely. They were among the few lucky ones to survive the accident unhurt. In the desert darkness behind them much of the train was a tangled mess of crushed and twisted metal. Stay tuned for part two.

and#8212; Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at You can reach him at

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