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Surviving Whitefish: Tales from the Deadliest Job

Updated: Jul 5

Riding the rails used to be riddled with danger. Explore the train wrecks, mishaps, and avalanches that dominated Whitefish's early years.

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Whitefish changed forever when the Great Northern Railroad came to town. It was instantly the biggest employer and the railroad tales those old-timers tell of the early years could fill countless books - maybe even a library! And when the tracks came to town, the company doctor wasn't far behind because there was always a crash or collision waiting around the corner.


What's the last train wreck you remember in Whitefish? Have you ever seen one? (This author never has.) Wrecks weren't always this rare - in the early 1900s Whitefish could see multiple crashes a month. Funerals, surgeries, and long hospital stays were commonplace. In this edition of Stumptown Stories, we explore the famous 1906 crash between Whitefish and Columbia Falls, the 1946 Troop Train wreck, and an avalanche from 1929.


Pictured above, Engine 3313 lies tilted in the gravel at the yard in Couer d'Alene. While this photo isn't from Whitefish, Engine 3313 would have been a common sight in the Whitefish train yard. Describing a similar incident with a train off the track in the Whitefish yard, one local remembered, "Everybody in town got up to see the wreck, except Ma and she was busy playing the base fiddle (snoring) and wouldn't get up."


 

Two Passenger Trains Meet Head-to-Head in 1906

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It was 11:00 on a Monday in January when Passenger Trains #1 and #2 collided on the tracks between Whitefish and Columbia Falls. The sound of the crash was loud enough to be heard by people walking the streets in Whitefish.


When the smoke cleared the following day, railroad workers found a mass of twisted metal, splintered planks, and scattered mail. The crash killed four people:

  • C.O. Quinn, Conductor on #2

  • William Kangley, Fireman

  • Ole Hanson, Fireman

  • B.H. Werzbacher, Express Messenger


Newspapers at the time note that all four men lived in Whitefish. Two of the four left behind wives and one, Kangley, left behind two small children. Every train wreck caused similar devastation in Whitefish as young men died and left young wives and children behind. However, they were quickly replaced by more railroad workers.


Several more people were injured in the wreck but, miraculously, no passengers were seriously injured. One extremely lucky chap, T.L. Gordon, escaped without a scratch but somehow managed to lose all his clothes in the crash. Reports say he came wandering into town wearing just a blanket and looking for a place to get some new pants!


The wreck occurred late at night on 1/29/1906 and by Tuesday, the area was crowded with nosy residents looking to see how bad the damage was. Pictured above, above right, and below, onlookers gaze at the carnage of the 1906 train wreck. The Whitefish Pilot even reported that H.O. Christensen took 12 women to look at the wreck on Wednesday. Ads in the paper quickly beckoned readers to "Come Get Your Photos" of the wrecked trains at the local photography store.


As the wreckers cleaned up the broken metal, everyone wondered the same thing, "Who caused the crash?" The townspeople weren't the only ones who wanted to know; Great Northern ordered an inquest into the cause of the wreck.

 

The Cause of the Famous 1906 Wreck

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The official inquest started on Tuesday, 1/30/1906. The investigators needed to uncover if something had gone awry that could cause another crash in the future. In addition to looking at the railroad infrastructure, they dug into the stories of what everyone on the trains was doing at the time of the accident. This time around, though, no one was to blame: the official inquest labeled the crash as an accident with no fault placed on anyone.


The crash could have been caused by any one of countless missteps (or a combination of several things). Early rail traffic was controlled by dispatchers at frequent intervals along the routes. In many instances, their orders were picked up on the fly using hoops caught by the trainmen. This was a risky method of control and it's a wonder there were not more wrecks.


Countless wrecks were the result of poor trackage, weak wooden trestles, snow slides, flooding, high winds, and (in some cases) operator error both in the dispatch office and by trainmen. Railroading was a dangerous occupation, which showed vast improvement with the advent of automatic controls and radio communication between train crews and control points.

 

Diesel vs Steam: Crash Near Lupher in 1946

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No Whitefish train wreck spawned more rumors than the crash on Saturday, September 14, 1946. Shortly after the incident, wild reports were flying around the country:

  • Sources in Helena reported 40 killed and 139 injured.

  • The Kalispell Hospital received directions to prepare for 130 injured.

  • Two C47s touched down in Whitefish Sunday morning carrying 4 doctors, 4 nurses, blood plasma, and emergency supplies. They were shocked to discover that their services were not needed!

  • Even Seattle newspapers called Whitefish to ask how high the death toll was.


The rumors were flying because one of the trains in the collision was a troop train carrying an Air Force unit from Florida to Geiger Field in Spokane. There were 125 people onboard. Their train had orders to clear track 28 by taking the siding near Lupher. The troop train pulled back onto track No. 28 once it cleared, only to see a freight train barreling toward them!


The freight train was powered by a 4-unit diesel locomotive while the troop train had a steam engine. Pictured above, the two trains crashed head-to-head. Despite the wild rumors, there were no deaths and only 43 injuries. No one ever figured out how the wild rumors got started, but they were enough to send herds of locals up to see the crash. Reports say, "Hundreds of cars and thousands of people flocked to the scene of the wreck on Sunday."

 

Avalanche Destroys Mail Train in 1929

A matter of seconds could mean the difference between life and death for early railroaders. Train No. 27, Great Northern's westbound mail truck, found themselves on the wrong side of that equation when an avalanche caught them on Monday, March 4, 1929.


The train was descending a steep grade near Slingshot about 60 miles from Whitefish when they stopped to investigate a small avalanche blockage on the tracks ahead of them. After looking it over, they decided to push the train through the snow. If they had made that decision a few seconds earlier, the second avalanche would have missed them completely.


But as the end of the train was about to clear the blockage, another slide triggered on the slope above them and began barreling toward the tracks. The snow hit the rear car and swept it into the gorge. The five cars attached to the rear cars were pulled down as well.


In those few seconds, the avalanche took the lives of three people working on No. 27:

  • Benjamin Stumpf (mail clerk)

  • Gus Mazos (Section foreman)

  • Phillip Tanas (Trackwalker)

Two of the deceased, Mazos and Tanas, were buried in the snow with no estimate of when their bodies would be recovered.


Pictured above, the engine of No. 27 sits on the tracks after the aftermath of the avalanche. Photos courtesy of the collection of Dot and Jess Underwood.

 

Preventing Snow Issues

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If you couldn't tell from the avalanche photos above, keeping the train tracks clear of snow was a major project during the winter months. One of the tools the railroad used to clear snow was the rotary snowplow (pictured above). The handwritten caption on the photo reads, "A rotary clearing the tracks of the G.N. Railway after the snow slides in the Rocky Mountains. Fielding. Mont. Jan. 1911."


Rotary snowplows were effective for clearing deep drifts and avalanches where snow could not be pushed to the sides. They could also operate at slow speeds, which helped in areas where high-speed approaches were dangerous. According to BNSF, rotary snowplows are still used in four strategic locations today. One of those locations is Glendive, Montana! These snowplows are fun to watch; click here to see one in action!

 

Doing the Heavy Lifting

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Whenever a train wreck happened, the emergency crews sprang into action. We couldn't wrap up this newsletter without acknowledging the people and efforts that went into cleaning up the wrecks.


Medical and fire suppression teams were often the first ones to any wreck. The railroad was the reason why Whitefish had a strong medical presence in the early years. Dr. Houston, Whitefish's first doctor, was a Great Northern physician who came to town with the railroad. (On a side note, Dr. Houston built the house that sits on the corner of 4th and Central. The large, white house with a wrap-around porch just underwent a massive rehabilitation to bring it back up to code while keeping its historic look.)


The second response wave to train wrecks was the clearing and wrecking teams seen in the photos above and left. These cranes and heavy machinery operators were tasked with clearing the tracks as quickly as possible. Any delay would stop the mail, passengers, and freight lines from meeting their goals. Wrecks were often cleared within hours of the incident.

 

Thank you for reading this month's Stumptown Stories newsletter about the history of train wrecks in Whitefish!

-The team at the Stumptown Historical Society

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