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Monday, October 30, 2000

The Vanden Station Train Wreck

Jerry Bowen


When you read the old newspapers, it’s somewhat astonishing to see how often people were injured or killed by trains in the early part of the century. Inattention, lack of adequate warnings at railroad crossings, company policies, and the insane urge to “beat” the trains through the intersection were often the reasons for the accidents.

An accident in 1900 that could have been avoided was particularly unfortunate.

The rails of the Southern Pacific Railroad between Davis and Suisun City had been under repair for some time in 1900. It was foggy the morning of December 4, when engineer, H. M. Tracy and fireman, Harry Watters brought the work train engine’s steam pressure up for the day. The conductor, Mr. Steele, received work instructions from Roadmaster Ferguson and ordered the train to get under way.

The fog was heavier than normal. The work train, traveling backwards, consisted of the engine, caboose, three sleeping cars and a dining car at the rear in that order. Worried about the low visibility and a freight train that was behind schedule, Steele stationed his head brakeman at the rear of the dining car as lookout. Forty laborers were in the sleeping and dining cars preparing for the day’s toil.

As the train approached a gentle curve between Vanden and Cannon Stations, Conductor Steele’s worst fears suddenly materialized. In the distance he could hear the chilling sound of another train approaching from the opposite direction. As the freight train roared out of the fog, Steele and the lookout yelled a frantic warning, signaled for emergency brakes and leaped from the train. Hearing the alarm, workers jumped for their lives as the trains raced toward the inevitable collision.

Engineer Ben Buzzo slammed the freight train’s air brakes on full just before he and the fireman jumped from the engine.

The force of the impact smashed the work train’s dining car to splinters as the freight’s engine continued its deadly path. Thundering through the dining car, the engine telescoped the sleeping cars into each other and off the tracks, finally ending its deadly trajectory behind the caboose of the work train.

Screams for “help” and “fire” propelled the survivors into action. An overturned wood-stove started a fire in the mangled wreckage. The rescuers, unable to reach the flames, passed buckets of water through the tangled wreckage to trapped survivors. Fortunately, they were able to douse the flames before more lives were sacrificed.

The work train’s engine and caboose, undamaged by the collision, raced for Suisun to spread the alarm and obtain assistance. Additional help was sent from Vacaville on another train with doctors J. W. Stitt and Campbell on board. Rescuers worked through the day to remove the dead and injured. Five were dead at the site and five more died later in the day. The injured survivors were sent by train to the railroad hospital at San Francisco accompanied by Vacaville’s Dr. Stitt and Dr. Downing of Suisun. The train carrying the injured men was met by several more doctors and surgeons at the Oakland Ferry Terminal where help was given to the injured during the trip to San Francisco.

An inquest was held in Solano County on December 7 to determine the facts causing the collision.

Close attention was paid to Conductor Steele’s testimony. He recounted the orders given to him before leaving Suisun and his concerns about the freight train’s three hour delay in schedule. The jury found that the train had been running three hours late, causing it to leave Davisville (Davis) at 7:45 a.m.

A combination of unclear work orders and poor coordination resulted in the jury for the inquest to determine that ” . . . the collision of trains No. 1722 and 201 near Vanden station was caused by carelessness of the Southern Pacific Company.”

Believing the Solano County jury may have been biased, Southern Pacific requested another inquest at San Francisco. Much to the company’s chagrin, the same conclusion was reached by the San Francisco jurors.

Conductor Steele and Engineer Tracy of the work train were fired by the company. In a bitter departing statement, Steele said, “I knew that I would be blamed for the disaster. When the investigation was begun I felt confident that my head was to fall. I admit that I was a bit at fault, but that I was responsible for the disaster I emphatically deny. The company had to have someone on whose shoulders to rest the blame and they singled out Engineer Tracy and myself.

Incidentally the policy of the company had a thing or two to do with it. If I had my way I would have remained in a place of safety with the work train until all chance of danger was over. I had an idea that the other train was three hours late, and that there was danger of a collision. But had I sidetracked the work train, the company would have accused me of laziness and worthlessness, and called me down for rendering a work train useless.

A day would have been lost, and the company would have received nothing in return for the money paid out in salaries, so had to take a chance, because the policy of the corporation compels its employees to take a chance. Had I stuck by my judgment there would have been no wreck. This traveling conductor, named Glass, who has testified so bitterly against me, is a personal enemy of mine.”

Perhaps some of what Mr. Steele said had a ring of truth. Just four years later at 8:04 a.m. on December 31, 1904, and on the same tracks, two trains crashed head-on near Suisun Station. Although only the engineer of one of the engines was killed, it still pointed out that substantial change was necessary to insure the safety of train operations.

Judging by e-mail and telephone calls I have received, many readers seem to enjoy visiting the sites described in these stories. Vanden Station was located a little north of the intersection of Vanden and Peabody Roads. Cannon Station is about a mile further north at the intersection of Vanden and Cannon Roads.