The first collision took place at 4:05 a.m. on January 30 in a lava rock cut-through about six miles west of American Falls. A westbound steam locomotive had been trying to climb the grade with little success, losing traction until the train came to a full stop. Crew members had reported their difficulty and noticed that a nearby signal had turned yellow. Engineer William Cramer wondered at first if a second locomotive had been sent from Pocatello to help them get up the grade. His story appeared in the Idaho State Journal on January 31.
“Then I saw the other freight about one half mile ahead of us as it rounded a curve,” Cramer said. “I knew it couldn’t stop in that short distance downhill, so I yelled to the fireman and brakeman, ‘get off, get off’
“They were working about five feet away, but they knew by my voice that we had to get off quick.”
The three jumped from the gangway of the cab and scrambled through about three feet of snow, getting about 30 feet from their abandoned engine.
“It seemed like Providence that we jumped on the south side,” Cramer said, “because most of the box cars piled up on the north side of our locomotive after the diesel telescoped into it.”
And there’s a point to remember. The stalled westbound engine was steam powered, while the speeding eastbound locomotive was powered by diesel.
The three trainmen in the diesel died in the smashup. The three who had jumped from the steam engine lived to tell the story.
Crews worked quickly to clear the tracks of the locomotives and 24 freight cars that had derailed. Railroad authorities set up a shuttle bus service from Pocatello to Shoshone to get some 400 people from scheduled passenger trains around the wreck. The line was cleared the next day.
Early estimates of the damage caused by the head-on collision were in excess of $1 million, making it Idaho’s most expensive train accident to date.
Tomorrow, I'll tell you about the 1951 crash and a possible cause of both collisions.