Three Times and Safe
by H. E. Webster
May 1946 issue of Railroad Magazine, Page 88
Right now, Al Burke is an engineer; "a crack young
hogger," the tallows tell me. Me? You can dub me
"worn out material." I happened to remember one day
last month that I'd been firing and running engines for
the Big G exactly forty years. That seemed long
enough, so I went to the smoke house and retired.
Al is tall, sinewy, good-natured and just explodes
with Irish humor. For several years I was pulling
the Empire Builder between Spokane and Troy, Montana.
When Al came firing for me in the fall of 1942, he
was too busy boning up for his coming exam to
smear much wit. The T.E. was swinging a soft hammer
and all Al wanted to talk about were distributing
valves and breakdowns. The only thing he had to say
when we had our first near catastrophe was: "Well,
Web, the good Lord has His arms 'bout us that time.
We'll have to expect two more after a close shave
Al's comment opened the topic of railroad accidents
occurring in three's. At the time, neither of us
was able to settle the question, nor will the following
happenings prove anything except that miracles do
happen. If my hair had not been already white, I'm
certain it would have been gray-streaked after those
three close calls.
It began during the winter of 1942. An unusually
heavy snowfall draped the mountains and blanketed the
valleys, and the first snow had fallen before the
ground was frozen. Throughout the cold months
the snow continued, without even the customary
January thaw to make it settle or crust over.
Then in March came a real thaw. Still the roadbed was
smooth and dry. No delays were caused by slow
orders until that first too eventful trip.
There was scant delay on that trip. The one cautionary
order read: "Watch carefully for small snow slides
in Kootenai Canyon."
Between Crossport, Idaho and Yakt, Mont., the green
Kootenai River meanders through a corkscrew gash in
stratified rock. Mountains rear skyward on both
sides of the river and the Great Northern right-of-way
was blasted out of the south wall. Because the
mountains are a ragged jumble of cliffs and boulders
with no clear, long slopes, there have never been
any real avalanches, so we figured on reaching Troy
only a few minutes late.
For about two miles at Leonia, Idaho, the tracks lie
well away from the mountain slope on a river bend flat.
I widened on the throttle to grab back a minute or so
that we had lost looking for small slides, and the
big P-2 speedster lunged up to 50 per. Here was a
stretch of safe, fast track. Burke and I leaned back
to relax until time to hit the gorge again. I mean,
we intended to.
But a half-million-pound mass of metal suddenly
nose-dived. It rolled, shivered, and I missed grabbing
the brake lever when I was tossed from the seat-box.
Then, just as suddenly as the contortions started,
they stopped. We were rolling along as smoothly as
ever, but the air signal whistle was shrilling
erratic wails. I'd set the air - hard - yet most
of the train had crossed the bad spot in the track
before it was greatly slowed down. It was only this
speed that saved us from being killed or injured -
like a boy skating fast over thin ice.
The ironic thing was that every mile of that ragged
gorge is patrolled by watchmen day and night, on the
lookout for fallen rocks on the track, or anything
which would necessitate stopping a train or reducing
its speed. Miles and miles of so-called slide
fences are built along the cliff sides; any rock or
small dirt slide will pull an electric plug which
throws block signals to stop position. Yet there,
right in the center of a long stretch of clear,
straight track lay potential disaster.
In 1910, a raging forest fire had burned the timber
on a vast mountain slope. Without foliage to shield
it, the deep snow lay unprotected from the rays of a
hot March sun. Melted snow water ran down the
mountain-side under the snow into a deep grading
ditch. The culvert was plugged with ice; and as the
water rose in the ditch, it found some small crevices
in the grading.
There was no little boy to plug the first little hole,
as in the case of the Holland dyke. That little hole
washed out larger and larger. When our train crossed
the blind washout on the bridge of rails, it was twelve
feet wide. The rails were bent downward a foot after we
had passed over them.
Scotia Canyon is a deep, tortuous gorge between Scotia
and Camden, Wash., that flumes the Little Spokane
River which splashes over a series of rapids before it
finally empties into the first of a chain of lakes.
Until a few years ago, the GN spanned a wide swamp
on a long, piled bridge. This crossing - two miles
east of Camden - was a constant source of train delays,
since no solid bottom could be found in the stinking
ooze. It shifted out of line regularly, necessitating
heavy maintenance expense and the slowing-down of all
trains on a heavy grade.
To cut its operational costs and avoid delays, the
company bored a half mile tunnel through a mountain
spur of solid granite. Only the portals had to be lined
with concrete, since the center rock is without flaw
or fissure. Coming west on First Number 1, the next
trip, we passed Scotia on time. After sundown the
temperature had dropped below freezing, turning the
still, humid air into a dense fog. I barely got a
glimpse of a clear block, just before we nosed onto the
In a fiction yarn, a scribe could stir in a little
premonition as a portent of sudden disaster; but nothing
like that obsessed us. When, along about the center
of the tunnel, Burke and I were suddenly tossed from
our seats and bumped our heads against the cab roof,
we were two much-astounded rails. We scrambled up
from the deck, but by the time I could grab the
brake lever, the engine was rolling along again as
smoothly as a bowling ball on new alleys. The air
signal whistle was wailing a frantic stop signal,
however, as the smoker wheels hit the bad track. In
that tense span our situation flashed through my
Even the seconds it took for all that to take place
were time enough to realize the fix we were in.
Second Number 1 would be running in the block.
We were in a tunnel thickly clouded with fog and
smoke. The engineer on the second train would
surely be running very carefully and would hardly
miss seeing the red block -- but what if he did?
I figured that some wheels on the cars might be
derailed, but right or wrong I wanted to get my
train out of that bore. I'd set the air, slowed
the train to 10 miles per hour. Now I released
it, so the train might drift slowly ahead. It was
a grand and glorious feeling when we rolled out
of the dank hole into clear crisp air.
The train crew's lanterns appeared suddenly at
the opened vestibules. Signals to keep going
showed that they understood, and I saw the
rear brakeman drop to the ground soon after the
rear car left the tunnel. A half mile farther
on I stopped, while we inspected the train. We
found no real damage, except that nearly every
steam-heat connection on the train was
This is what happened. When the last blast was
set off in the tunnel roof, it left behind some
shattered rock which did not fall. Moisture
from exhausting locomotives had gathered in the
crevices. Then the sudden freeze loosened it,
and a ton of small chunks and pulverized
granite had fallen down on the track. That we
ran over it - and stayed on the rails - is
miracle Number 2. By this time, Burke and I
agreed we were prime favorites of a kindly fate.
On a railroad where every known precaution is
observed to insure safety, two unexpected
conditions had nearly brought disaster. Then
came the third.
Engine number 1383, a smaller locomotive, was on
First 1, leaving Troy the next trip. We had the
Pullman section, as usual comprised of 11 cars,
and immediately behind the engine were two or
three Pullmans carrying an Ice Follies troupe -
beautiful young girls, the premier amateur
ice skaters gathered from many states - who were
bound for Seattle to open an engagement. Every
berth in the other Pullmans was occupied, the
passenger list including a Major and many soldiers.
The Army came through in helping out with what
When we nosed out of the canyon a mile east
of Crossport, I widened on the throttle. We
had a stop to make at Bonners Ferry so I sped
along to be on time at the big Kootenai town.
The evening was crisp and clear. Nothing in
our orders required other than ordinary
vigilance. The 1300 class is a great engine
for its size, and a glance at the speed
indicator at Crossport showed 50 per.
Old rails spend no time worrying over past
events. Two near catastrophes were casting
no shadows on coming events, and
conditions were so normal that when a series
of slight shocks shook the engine, Burke
merely gave me a glance which said, "A spot
of soft track."
But instinctively I glanced back, when the
engine lunged jerkily and our speed dropped
until we were stopped with a last clank of
the drawbar. Because we were on a mild left
curve, I could see nothing but dirt being
sprayed from somewhere under the train.
Hell! I thought, must have a brake beam
down. Tore an air hose and set the air in
emergency. We had to have the third accident,
so could we cite another case. Just then I
glanced at Burke and got a glimpse of his
"What's wrong?" I called.
"Wrong," he blurted. "My God, Web, they
must be all dead!"
I jumped across the cab and looked back to see
Pullmans strewn over the right-of-way. There
they lay at grotesque angles, one had taken a
dive through the right-of-way fence.
Soon we heard someone calling from the other
side of the engine, and Boyer, the head
brakeman, climbed up the gangway ladder.
"Harry and I were scared stiff," he
blurted. "We sure thought the engine must
be in the ditch but there's not a wheel of the
engine off the track."
"What about Harry (Harry Rohrbaugh was our
conductor), and the passengers?" I asked.
"Harry? A hundred percent, Web. And I didn't
see a hurt passenger on this end of the train.
Harry has told the Major to have his soldiers look
through every car, then have the passengers
lined up at the cars they were riding in, until
he can check them all. He ran back to the phone
to report, and he wants you to give 'em any
dope you find after you check the works. But we'll
go back and see if the passengers need any help, first."
As we hurried from car to car, past steel Pullmans
scattered about like a kid's toy train, an awed
thankfulness gripped us. Starting just west of the
west switch at Crossport were nine cars out of
eleven scattered over the rough right-of-way.
Every passenger was soon on the ground. We had to
smile when we saw their astounded expressions as
they looked over the wreckage and they realized
they had escaped being injured.
The worst personal damage was one lady's broken rib.
Two, three others out of the thirty passengers had
bruises. From the rear end of the train, where two
Pullmans still stood on rails, I walked slowly
towards the engine. For 300 feet, the track was
entirely gone. Rails were twisted and broken; ties
and roadbed were ripped out as by a huge plow.
Burke and I returned to the engine to look for
a possible cause of the derailment. We inspected
the engine and tender carefully along with the
mechanical official who was aboard; and yet we
found nothing. An exhaustive investigation later,
failed equally to discover any reason. It seemed
impossible to even form a plausible opinion of what
might have caused the accident.
Happy is hardly descriptive of the crowd that milled
around the train, thankful for being alive. They
formed lines to inspect the engine cab. A roly-poly
individual, the clown of the ice follies troupe,
told of eating in the diner when it strayed through
the fence alongside the track.
"One of the girls had just finished eating, arose
and reached for her handbag, which lay on the end
of the table, when the car took to the timber," he
laughed. "Well that handbag slid off into the aisle
and started toward the kitchen. A bowl of soup
slopped off. And when the kid stooped to pick up
her pocketbook, she slid all the way to the kitchen,
squatted down, as though chasing her bag. I'd a
laughed myself, even if I was headed for a sausage
"But the richest thing I saw was a lady who began
to scream like bloody murder was on her. The dining
car steward hurried up. "What's the matter, lady?"
"My baby! Where is my baby?" she screamed. "The
steward looked under the tables and chairs before
he remembered seating the lady alone at her table.
"But you did not have your baby with you when you
came in," he said, trying to calm her. So they
hurried back, got into the next car - and it was
badly tilted - and found the baby in a forward
seat, fast asleep."
"Imagine," one of the girls exclaimed, as she sat
on the seat-box pretending she was an engineer.
"Imagine, except for a lady with a cracked rib, I'm
the worst hurt of anyone I've heard of."
"You? Are you hurt?" Burke asked.
"Sure am. See here," she chuckled. She bared a knee
and just below it was an angry-looking bruise and an
abrasion the size of a quarter. I dug into my grip,
got a small first-aid kit, swabbed it with iodine
and taped on a bandage.
"Okay, kid," I told her. "And say, that skating sure
develops legs. That's a streamliner!"
"Why, you gray-headed old wolf," she laughed. "You
ought to see the other one!" Did Burke give me
the Ha! Ha!
Later that evening a delegation of older passengers
came to the engine to thank me for saving their lives.
It came to me finally that they were not kidding me,
that they were sincere in thinking that some human
agency had saved them.
"Before you sleep tonight, folks," I suggested, "just
thank God for saving your lives."
It took more than luck to bring us safely through
those three accidents.