July 27, 2015

The Great Date Creek Train Wreck

The Date Creek Wreck the next day.

It was the night of August 26th, 1915.  Oscar and Frank Pemberton were sitting on their porch watching a violent storm move from the mountains to engulf them and their surroundings.  In the distance, the Santa Fe, Prescott and Phoenix Railroad train was approaching a bridge three miles south of Date Creek station.  As they were watching the engine make its way, the lights on the engine suddenly disappeared.  More ominously, the steam whistle was left open sending a scream of mourning across the valley.

The two men quickly saddled up to ride out to the scene at full gallop.  At best, it was a simple derailment; at worst, people were dead and dying.

As the fierce rain pelted both man and horse, the pair rode up upon the worst train wreck to date on the SF, P&P.

For the passengers on the train, it was a bolt from the blue.  They noticed the rain had gotten heavier, but didn't have much reason to be concerned about it.  Then they heard cracks that sounded like rifle fire.  There was a jolt; the lights went out and water was suddenly waist deep and rising.

Bridge No. 197, weakened by a 20 to 30 mile-per-hour, 10 foot high current of water, had collapsed under the weight of the train.

Famous record breaking airplane, "The Yankee Doodle" meets its demise in 1928 Prescott, Arizona.

The engine "reached the center before the slightest intimation was given.  Then the cracking of timbers was heard and the engine fell into the the creek" backward toward the collapse and landed on its side.

"The baggage car followed after the engine, turning on its side, upstream."  The smoker car was next, burrowing under the baggage car and telescoped into "a mass of kindling wood."

"The next car, the day coach, crashed into the rear of the smoker, while the Pullman sleeper sustained only a slight jar" and remained partially on the track.

At a time when confusion might be expected to reign, every able bodied person went to work to rescue those who were trapped.

The Pemberton men, who had riden up from their ranch, saw a passenger trying to break in the door of the submerged day coach.  They rushed over and with the additional help, the door was breached.  Although several in the car sustained minor injuries, everyone in it would survive thanks to these quick reactions.

The smoking car sustained the worst.  Four men were trapped in the wreckage and were quickly drowned if they were not killed outright.  A total of 17 were injured in the wreck.

The strong box from the baggage car went missing during the disaster.  It was unknown how much cash was in it.

Amazing account of one of the largest winter storms in the history of Yavapai county, Arizona--The great Blizzard and Flood of 1916.

"While waiting for relief...the rain kept pouring down all over the country surrounding Date Creek, and it was but a short time before the cars had so blocked the stream that it was running about 15 feet deep."

The train's fireman was one of many who survived miraculously.  "He jumped from the cab window lighting on the big driver wheel which was still running at full speed."  Had he landed on the spokes of the drive wheel, he surely would have been mauled.  Instead, "the momentum of (the wheel) hurled him to the top of the engine..."  (It was later reported in the August 31st paper, that at the inquest, he was not thrown to the top of the engine, but into the water where he made his way back.)  He sustained only scratches from the whole ordeal.

Four men, sitting in the center of the smoking car, were able to make their way out while the four who died were sitting just on either side of the survivors! One of the fortunate four "had his scalp badly torn and was washed down the stream for nearly a quarter of a mile before he got to shore.  He walked back to the train and did not realize he was seriously injured until attention was called to his condition."

Relief trains eventually did arrive and took everyone back to Prescott with the injured being sent to Mercy Hospital.  It required two wreckers to retrieve the cars and the locomotive.  But to their credit, the railroad was up and running its regular schedule using a temporary bridge only four days later!

View of the wreck from the rear

"It (was) presumed that by way of a sad coincidence, the train and the cloudburst at its full height reached the bridge at the same time."

Ironically, one of the four dead was "Grady Beck, a Santa Fe bridge carpenter, who had been inspecting the bridges and trestles along the line near the trestle that gave way..."

Prescott Journel Miner, August 28, 1915 Pages 1 & 6 and August 31, page 6


Tourist Tips:
Sharlot Hall Museum Has a Terrific Exhibit on Prescott's RR History!

There's not much left of the Date Creek Ghost Town... (Click Here)


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