Wednesday, Jul. 17, 2019

The Great Train Wreck of 1903

By Dewey Livingston · January 17, 2019

 <span>&copy; Jack Mason Museum </span>

 <span>&copy; Jack Mason Museum </span>  <span>&copy; Jack Mason Museum </span>

The North Pacific Coast Railroad, being narrow gauge and usually hurting for money, had its share of mishaps and disasters. Derailments, washouts, breakdowns, collisions, all were par for the course for an active railroad. One incident stands out for its tragic toll: two killed and two score injured.

The North Shore Railroad had recently been organized to take over the decrepit North Pacific Coast, and in 1903 the new company was taking care of improvements, the most major being the groundbreaking electrification of the eastern section of the line in the Marin County suburbs. Still, there were weak links in the line, all left over from the NPC’s later—and hungrier—days.

It is ironic that the disaster of 1903 was associated closely with Warren Dutton, one of the original boosters of the line back in the early 1870s. Dutton, half a century earlier the founder of modern Tomales, had done much to bring the train through Tomales country and bought property along the line with an eye for enlivening the economy of the region. By 1903 he was an old man, and died on June 19.

A long list of notable people from San Rafael, San Francisco and beyond came to his funeral in Tomales on June 21. The North Shore provided three coaches for the throng, which arrived in Tomales as a sad procession after passing many of Dutton’s old haunts, especially Marshall, Hamlet and Ocean Roar. After the services, some in the group desired to return to the south earlier than scheduled, so the railroad company switched coaches and provided one for the early returnees.

Pulled by a narrow gauge locomotive with tender, the single coach holding 31 men, women and children wound its way alongside Tomales Bay and into Point Reyes Station. From there it gained speed as it headed up Lagunitas Creek. At the throttle was Engineer Orth, who had only once before driven this part of the line. He obviously was unaware of the curving, S-shaped trestle a short distance east of town, where the rails crossed the wide creek.

As the train approached the trestle it was already going too fast. This account in the San Francisco Call described what happened:

Eyewitnesses to the wreck say that for 500 feet before the coach left the track the train appeared to be skimming along with only the inside wheels on the track. C. D. Gale, a railroad man, who was among the injured, said that the train was going at least forty miles an hour at the time of the accident.

At the center of the trestle, which was about ten feet off the water below, the tender and coach finally gave way to gravity and fell into the creek; the coach was upside down and its roof crushed. As reported, “the coach landed squarely on its top, crushing the woodwork and glaze into an indescribable mass. So badly was everything crushed that only a few passengers, even among the uninjured ones, were able to extricate themselves without assistance.”

Cries of agony arose from the penned-up people in the coach. There were dead among them and dying, and some whose agony from their injuries made them pray for death. Children with cut and bruised bodies reached out helpless hands for the sheltering touch of their mothers, husbands grasped feebly for their wives and agonized cries arose on all sides.

A small group of tent campers nearby heard the crash and came running. The three men and three women did all they could to rescue passengers, using their camp axes, and within a short time all had been freed from the wreck. “The members of the camping party were soaked in blood from head to foot as a result of their exertions.”

A larger group, the First Congregational Church Cadets from Oakland, ensconced at nearby Camp Pardee, came to the scene after most had been extracted from the wreckage. Fortunately there was a surgeon among the group, Dr. Dudley Fulton. He organized an impromptu hospital on site, the cadets utilizing “improvised stretchers made from car seats and broken bits of wreckage.”

Dr. Fulton worked tirelessly to relieve the sufferings of the injured. He was everywhere, making improvised splints from wreckage for broken limbs, binding and stitching cuts and administering such tender comfort as his medicine case held to those suffering excruciating pain from their injuries.

Eighteen-year-old Charley Rowley ran back to the depot at Point Reyes Station to report the incident. The injured and dead were taken back to town in a painful journey, and it took two hours to get everyone ready for the journey to San Rafael and Sausalito, where more formal treatment could be obtained. Some of the injured were taken into private houses in Point Reyes Station for comfort. More doctors and nurses arrived to ready the patients for transport. The company provided two coaches “with an ambulance of pillows and quilts” for the long ride to the other side of the county.

Twenty-four people were injured, some so seriously that it was thought they wouldn’t survive. Among the injured were Judge Frank Angellotti, a pioneer of San Rafael, and his wife; Judge Edward B. Mahon of San Rafael, who was thought to be near death but survived; Marin pioneer and former sheriff James Tunstead; and Dr. W. J. Wickman, prominent San Rafael internist. A four-year-old girl had her skull fractured but survived.

The two dead were both prominent people: Michael Kirk, the longtime Tomales Bay rancher and son-in-law of Marin pioneer James Miller; and Anton Roman, the publisher of The Overland Monthly, a popular periodical of the time. Kirk was among the first white settlers of Tomales Bay, a contemporary of Dutton’s.

The wreck prompted an overall repair effort on the west Marin part of the line, including the entire reconstruction of the trestle, making it straight and sturdy. Pilings from the structure can still be seen up the creek from Point Reyes Station.

 This article is an excerpt from Dewey Livingston’s upcoming—and yet unnamed—two-volume book on the history of the Point Reyes Peninsula, the Tomales Bay area and the towns therein, due to be published in the late spring.

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