Lake Labish Railroad Disaster, November 1890

Found these photos in our collection today. Although the accident was in adjoining Marion County this is a great example of late 19th century reporting from the Oregonian and the Statesman on a tragic accident.

California Express Crashes Through a Trestle
A Number of Passengers Probably Fatally Injured
Nearly Every Passenger on a Crowded Train Bruised and Injured.

Salem, Nov. 12. – Shortly after 8 o’clock last night the Overland Southern Pacific passenger train, or the California Express, went down with the north end of the long trestle crossing what is known as Lake Labish, about a half-mile north of the Chemawa Indian training school, five miles from Salem. The trestle must have given way as soon as the engine struck it, and the train and trestle all went down together.


The engine was overturned and half buried almost, in the mud. Following this were the tender, mail, baggage and express cars, broken and twisted entirely out of shape.

Then followed the first-class day coach, which was saved from going over by alighting with the front end on an old tree, broken off about even with the trestle. The seats in the car were every one broken to splinters and the partitions were broken into thousands of pieces.

Next was the Pullman car “Alalla” with seventeen passengers, and only three escaped without injury.

The next and last car was the Pullman “Roseburg”, in which were fifteen passengers, only four of these got off with slight bruises.

In the smoker and day coach every seat was occupied, and the proportion of injured was larger, if possible, than that of the cars following, as the wreck was the most disastrous from the front end, on account of the mail, express, and baggage cars overturning.

The only thing that kept the train from burning was the fact that the trestle and track went down almost perpendicularly with it, and none of the passenger cars were overturned.


As the reporter approached the wreck, coming from the south through the dismal swamp known as “Lake Labish”, the scene of the catastrophe looked like a fire in the distance, caused by the many fires that had been built along either side of the ill-fated train to keep the wounded warm, who had been removed from the wreck, and to light the way of the willing workers who had hastened to the resorts from every direction.

The scene about the wreck was one long to be remembered. Laid out on the ground were the mangled corpses recovered from the wreck. Reclining on improvised beds about the fires were the wounded, who had been taken from the coaches, while standing about, lending what assistance they could, were those less seriously wounded, and around these and everywhere were the crowds who had come to help, or from curiosity.

In the coaches standing on the fallen trestlework were the same scenes, every available cushion being occupied by some unfortunate more or less injured.

As soon as the doctors from Salem arrived, at about fifteen minutes after 11 o’clock, they set about dressing the wounds and administering to the needs of the injured. They were assisted in this work by as many of Salem’s people as could reach the scene.


The first news of the disaster that reached Salem came by an Indian student of the Chemawa school, who arrived a little before 9 o’clock, having ridden in. He said 100 people were killed. Immediately every physician in the city was summoned and prepared to go. At once fire was put in the yard engine, and as soon as possible two flat cars were switched on and the run to the dismal swamp was made in very short order. This train carried several of the physicians and a large crowd of helpers, including representatives of the Statesman. Every available rig in the city was taken within a few minutes and hundreds were soon upon the scene of death.

A relief train was also ordered immediately from Albany, and a part of the Albany express, that passed over the deadly trestle only a few minutes before the ill-fated train went down to it’s destruction, was sent. At once a wrecking and construction train was started out from Portland, and will clear the wreck and repair the break as rapidly as possible.

The length of the bridge is about 600 feet. The trestle work there was from sixteen to twenty feet high, and that was consequently the height of the fall.

The engineer felt the trestle give way as soon as his engine struck it. He gave one short whistle and set the brakes. The train moved ahead about fifty yards as it went down, and it was all the work of less than a minute.

One man, whose name could not be learned, bit his tongue off, the concussion coming while he was talking. The three cars in the lead, the mail, express, and baggage, were overturned and mashed all to pieces.


The express car was thrown crosswise of the track, the mail car to one side of the track and the baggage car to the other. How the messengers and clerks in these cars escaped with their lives is a miracle. To look at the cars, one would not suppose it possible to get out alive. It was reported that one of them was killed, and that another had an arm broken, but the truth of the rumor could not be affirmed nor denied. One man, whose name is unknown, sustained a terrible scalp wound, the top of his head being laid back.

The trestle gave immediately upon the engine striking it.

The total number of deaths from this accident will probably reach as high as ten, as many have sustained what it is feared will prove to be serious internal injuries, and spinal hurts. A few whose spines were injured badly were delirious, and the names of several could not be obtained. One was an elderly man in the coach with the United States marshal from Utah and another was a young man in the tourist sleeper.


John R. Blew, the Portland train agent, who got off with a skinned nose was one of the first to reach Salem after the accident, coming down on the railroad track and assisting in getting the yard engine started.

Hon. M. F. Jeffery, of Portland, occupied a seat in the head Pullman. He was slightly bruised and pretty well shaken up, but otherwise not injured. Its said the reason as many had their backs injured was that they were in a sitting posture and the train lunged forward as well as down, most unmercifully jerking them and throwing them forward.

There was not a passenger who was not badly shaken up, and many of them had their backs injured in addition to broken legs, arms, etc.

The article continues with a list of the injured including:

Captain Jack Crawford, the poet scout, bruised.

James McCarry, U.S. Marshal from Salt Lake City, Utah, nose broken, leg probably broken and badly injured internally, fears are that he will bleed to death.

(McCarry did recover)


As far as the loss of life is concerned, considering the character and magnitude of the disaster, it was one of the most fortunate accidents known in the annals of railway disasters. The one hundred killed (according to the first report) dwindled down to ten, then five, next to four, and finally to three. It is now known that only three men were killed outright. They are Engineer John McFadden, Fireman F. G. Neals and the unknown tramp, who in all probability was stealing a ride when catastrophe overtook him. One man who was internally injured has died since, and few more will probably meet the same sad fate. (One other person died bringing to final total to five dead.)


Salem, November 21: This evening the Oregon board of railroad commissioners submitted the following report of findings in the matter of the late train disaster….

The investigation of the above matter coming to be heard, it was found that the two reasons for the disaster, to wit: First – That a rail had been removed from the track by some person or persons unknown, which was said to be the primary cause of the wreck.

Second – That the structure had fallen on account of its age and weakness of its parts.

After hearing the testimony of numerous witnesses and having made a personal inspection of the wreck, the board finds that there is no satisfactory evidence in support of the proposition that a rail had been removed. That the following facts are established by a preponderance of evidence:

First – That the Southern Pacific Company’s train No. 16, of November the 12th, 1890, consisting of eight cars, ran into the trestle at Lake Labish, in Marion county, Oregon at about 8:15 P.M. of said day, at a rate of about twenty miles per hour.

Second – That the airbrakes were firmly and suddenly applied, which caused the structure to give way at a point about 600 feet south of the north approach, precipitating the engine and three cars into the marsh, a distance of sixteen feet, throwing down the entire structure from where the break occurred to the north end, causing the death of Engineer John McFadden, his fireman, F. G. Neal, and an unknown man, and seriously injuring the other trainmen and a large number of passengers.

Third – That the structure was faulty in the following particulars; The bents, considering the nature of the ground, it being boggy and spongy, were two far apart; the ties were too widely spaced; the guard rails were in a state of decay and but few were properly fastened, and they were so frail as to afford no safeguard; that much of the timber in the bents, especially caps and sills, had more or less decayed; that the bents were not securely sway braced; that some of the piles supporting the bents were unsound; that many of the stringer-bolts had been allowed to become loosened.

Although Southern Pacific challenged the findings, other engineers determined that the trestle was unsafe. As a result of the accident the state required twice-yearly examination of railroad trestles.

Nine cases were filed against Southern Pacific for damages. John B. Rauh of Tacoma was awarded $10,000. Rauh was confined to bed after the accident and appeared in court on a stretcher.




Oscar Bair of Portland is Victim at Parkplace.


Fireman, Injured When Thrown from Cab, Attempts to Shut Off Steam.

Oregon City, OR, Oct 22, 1920.

E-WGN-135 1920 train wreck

Photos by Ralph Eddy

Oscar Bair, engineer on the Southern Pacific extra freight No. 2560, was killed instantly at Parkplace today, when his engine and three cars telescoped and were thrown into the ditch after a flange on a gondola car had broken. Bair’s engine was running as a helper, and was near the center of the train.

The gondola car was loaded with coal and was two cars ahead of the engine. This car was twisted and broken, while the two other cars that left the track, both wooden box cars, one loaded with lumber and the other with flour, were completely demolished.

Bair was pinned under the wreckage and was scalded to death. B. A. McCall, the fireman, was thrown clear of the wreck although the engine toppled on his side of the cab.

Attempt at Rescue MadeE-WGN-137 1920 train wreck

Members of the crew declared that the train was making about 15 to 20 miles an hour when the accident occurred, but Mrs. K. Zielaskwski, who resides near the scene of the accident and who was an eyewitness, said it was running at a high rate of speed. Mrs. Zielaskwski was looking out the window of her home at the time. She said that she saw the fireman thrown clear of the cab about 15 or 20 feel away and that he immediately ran back and attempted to shut off the steam that was scalding the engineer.

The truck of the gondola was torn loose from the car and the engine plowed on ahead of the coal car before it went over.

E-WGN-136 1920 train wreckFuel from Engine Spilled.

The engine was an oil burner, and much fuel was spilled on the ground but did not ignite.

Paul Praueger, another eyewitness of the accident, immediately rushed to the train, but he said the engineer was dead when he arrived. Bair was formerly a guard at the penitentiary and leaves family in Portland. The body was brought to the Holman  & Pace undertaking establishment in this city, and McCall received medical attention here.

Trains were tied up in Oregon City all morning pending removal of the wreck, the first going through at 1 P.M.

A board of inquiry has been named by the Southern Pacific to make a complete investigation of the cause of the wreck and report its findings as quickly as possible.

Oregonian, October 23, 1920

The Launching of the Lot Whitcomb December 25, 1850

Lot Whitcomb001

To the Oregon Spectator
Milwaukie, Dec. 4 1850
GENTLEMEN — Your’s bearing date 10th inst. is before me, apprising me of the meeting held by the citizens and members of the Legislative Assembly on the 7th inst., in which the committee appointed to express to me the sense of such meeting, as well as to notify me of the name that they should decide on for the New Steamer being built at Milwaukie, Your committee will first please accept my most unfeigned and sincere respects, and through you to the citizens and legislative assembly I beg leave to tender my hearty thanks for the honor they have done me.

I cannot but feel proud at this much of respect shown me. It always has been my earnest desire to keep pace with, and assist in forwarding any improvement proposed in this my adopted country, and rest assured the compliment you have paid me in naming the Steamer “Lot Whitcomb of Oregon” will tend to add another impetus to my desire. With my best wishes to all, I subscribe myself, Gentlemen.
Your ob’t serv’t


The launching of a steamboat, such as the capacity of the one that heads this article, was something new in the Territory. We have been informed that it was participated in by a large number of person, residents and strangers. Christmas was truly a proud day for Milwaukie. We regret to state that the death of a very estimable man, occurred, the Star says: That of CAPT. F. MORSE, of the Schooner Merchantman, while in the act of touching fire to a cannon, was instantly killed by the bursting of the piece which was blown into atoms, and fragments scattered about for some distance – injuring no one, however, but Capt. MORSE. A fragment of the gun struck him in the neck below the jaw, carrying away one-half of the contents of the neck, breaking the vertebrae of the neck and lower jaw-bone — Thus it ever is, with us mortals, — truly “in the midst of life we are in death.”

Capt. MORSE was a man who had acquired many warm friends here; and whom a short acquaintance with, had strongly prepossessed us in his favor and his untimely fate has cast a gloom over our mind which we cannot easily dispel. He leaves a family, we understand, at New Bern, North Carolina.

his being the day for launching this new and beautiful Steamer, which has been built here, within the last few months, naturally called together a large assemblage of people from the surrounding country, to witness the launch of a steamer, the product of the enterprise and energy of one of our most worthy citizens, which must be of incalculable benefit to the interests of Oregon.

At about 3 o’clock P.M., everything being in readiness, and a goodly number on board, she was cut loose from her fastenings, like a meteor from the heavens. Everything being so well arranged, she went off safely without any straining of the boat, or any other damage or accident.

Great credit is due to the constructor, Wm. L. Hanscom, for the fine model, and the workmanlike manner in which she has been built; and also for the nice arrangements perfected for the safe and expeditious launch, which we had the pleasure of witnessing.
(Oregon Spectator, January 2, 1851)

lot whitcomb steamboat001

Oregon City Items

Morning Oregonian, March 1, 1869

We clip the subjoined items from the Oregon City Enterprise of Saturday:

There will be an election of Chief Engineer and Assistant, at the Council Chamber on Monday next …. Blasters are employed upon the line of the O.C.R.R., within hearing distance below this city…..Rev. Mr. Sellwood’s music class contemplates giving a concert soon, we are pleased to state…..The Success, on her last trip down, brought thirty tons of bacon from the extensive packing house of A. Cowan & Co., Albany. This is the largest shipment of bacon we have heard of this winter; and yet, it is but a forerunner of what we may expect from the same house hereafter. This house, we learn, has a large amount still on hand which will be shipped in a few weeks… Mr. John M. Bacon, City Recorder, has just completed a census, from which we learn that the total population of the city is 963, as follows:

  • Total number of men ………………………….310
  • Total number of women…………………….. 189
  • Total number of boys under 4 years……. 68
  • Total number of girls under 4 years…….. 52
  • Number of girls between 4 and 20……… 175
  • Number of boys between 4 and 20…….. 169

…The steamer Success, Capt. E. W. Baughman, a new boat in the line of the People’s Transportation Company, left the basin on Thursday morning for Corvallis and intermediate points. The Success was built by the Canemah Transportation Company of this county, and started on the 11th day of August last as an independent boat, and has now been transferred to the P. T. Co., which ends competition or oppositions, for the present on the Wallamet river.

The upper basin at Willamette Falls. The West Shore – August 1887


The Steamer ALERT, James Strang, Master

Will leave Vaughn’s Wharf, Portland,


Every Morning (Sundays excepted) at 7 O’Clock

connecting on

Monday and Thursday, with the Steamer ACTIVE, Capt. J. T. Apperson,

For Salem, Albany, and Corvallis.

D. W. Burnside, Pres’t W. S. N. Co.


Willamette Steam Nav. Co. will take freight at the following rates:

  • From Portland to Oregon City, per ton….$ .50
  • From Portland to Canemah, per ton ……..$ .75
  • From Portland to Salem, per ton………….$1.50
  • From Portland to Albany, per ton………..$2.00
  • From Portland to Corvallis, per ton………$2.50

Down Freight at the same rates.

No extra charge over the Oregon City Railroad.

(Advertisements, February 28, 1866, Morning Oregonian)


Railroad through Canemah


Oregon City, Feb 23

The Oregon City and Southern Railway Company today filed a suit against the Oregon and California Railroad Company and the Southern Pacific Company for condemnation of the right of way at grade over two crossing in Canemah. The court is asked to make an order granting said right of way over the tracks of the Southern Pacific, and to determine the remuneration to be paid by the Oregon City & Southern. The track of the Oregon City & Southern is completed to the city limits of Oregon City at the southern extremity, and would likely be of use ot the Portland & Oregon City to run its cars down past the flouring mills.  


The Sunday Oregonian, February 24, 1901


Object of Trolley Line to Canemah Landing


Southern Pacific Opposes the Move to Order to Protect Its Business in the Willamette Valley – Fight on Grade Crossing

Two reasons are given for the opposition of the Southern Pacific Company to the Oregon City & Southern, the projected extension of the present Oregon City trolley link. One is that the proposed extension of the trolley line would bring into operation a fierce strife for traffic along the river. The other is that it would open the way to further extension in the Willamette Valley, into a field that is now exclusively Southern Pacific. It is not supposed that there is anything in the rumor that the O. R. & N. is behind the trolley line’s efforts to get entrance to the Willamette Valley; circumstances are against this theory.

River competition already forces many Southern Pacific charges below what Pacific Coast roads beyond the influence of water ordinarily levy. Water transportation now reaches Salem, Albany, Corvallis, Independence, McMinnville, Dayton and innumerable smaller places; in fact, comparatively little of the traffic of the Willamette Valley is beyond the influence of river competition. All the traffic coming out of the Willamette Valley by river is subject to the lockage of 50 cents a ton, or a per capita charge for passage through the locks at Oregon City. By transferring to rails at Canemah, at a cost estimated not to exceed 5 cents per ton, the river charge would be cut 45 cents per ton below present rates, which reduction the Southern Pacific would have to meet in order to do business. This is the situation with reference to outward-bound traffic, and the same cause would operate as well on business destined up the Valley. Roughly, it may be said that the lockage is 25 to 33 percent of the total charge for taking freight up or down the Willamette River. A reduction of so great a percent would mean much to the Southern Pacific, while the steamboats would still be as well off as under present conditions, such reduction not coming from their pockets at all, but from the Portland General Electric Company, which owns and operates the locks.


The O. R. & N. has steamers on the Willamette River, and is thus a competitor with the Southern Pacific in that field. It is not improbable that it might make traffic arrangements with the trolley line. But, the same privilege would be open to the other steamer lines on the river.

The present project of the Oregon City & Southern is to get a river landing in the upper part of Canemah. To reach that point the route is along the county road, which in the first place had but a narrow resting place between the bluff and the river’s edge, and part of that was taken by the Southern Pacific track. Now the trolley line is forced out to the brink and even at that teams must travel upon it in places in order to use the county road, therefore the requirements that the track be planked. At the lower edge of Canemah the trolley route crosses the railroad to follow the county thoroughfare and a few blocks further south the trolley route recrosses the railroad in order to reach the river landing. Those two crossings are what the railfoad company is fighting against just now. The lay of the land is such that any other than grade crossing there would not be impracticable.

It is not absolutely necessary that the trolley line should follow that route in Canemah. To continue along the river bank to the landing is said to be practicable, though a much more expensive route to build on.

It is said that the Oregon City & Southern has plans for building further up the Valley, tapping the rich Molalla and adjacent prairies and going even to the Silverton country. This would introduce new competition at points not affected by the river.

As the matter now stands the Oregon City & Southern has its track laid to the southern boundary of Oregon City, about 1700 feet beyond the end of the Portland City & Oregon track. Proceedings to condemn the crossings have been commenced in the Clackamas County Circuit Court and further construction operations will, it is said, await the issue of these proceedings. Haste was necessary within the city in order to prevent the franchise there from lapsing, but outside the city delays on account of legal obstacles are not permitted to run against the franchise.


To the vigilance of W. C. Ganong, who for 40 years has lived on his pleasant farm on the east bank of the Willamette, is due the fact that a wagon road along the river is preserved, giving entrance to Oregon City from that direction without climbing a 400-foot hill. He fought the Oregon & California Railroad when it threatened to occupy the wagon road, and he fought appropriation of the county thoroughfare by the new Oregon City & Southern trolley line. In both cases he won his contention and preserved his road to the county seat. Now he complacently watches the track builders and is heartily in favor of encouraging the new road.

“We want this trolley line, we want railroads,” said Mr. Ganong yesterday, “but we also want and must have our wagon road to the county seat. I am not willing to have the wagon road wholly occupied by railroads in a situation like this, between Oregon City and Canemah. Let the others come, but let them build in such a way that they will not block the wagon road. We can’t afford to climb over a mountain to get to Oregon City.”

When the Oregon & California got a franchise in the county road between Oregon City and Canemah in 1870 Mr. Ganong was instrumental in having the terms closely defined. The wagon road was not to be encroached upon except where it could not be avoided, and the railroad company was bound to maintain the wagon road in good repair. He interfered at various stages of the work to insist upon protection of the wagon road, and he still holds the pass.

Electric Railway

Oregon City Enterprise
February 22, 1893
The electric cars began running this morning two hours apart, leaving Portland 25 minutes after the even hours and Oregon City the same time after the odd hours. The last car leaves here at 9:25 P.M.

Oregon City Enterprise
Feb 21, 1894
This morning, without previous notice having been given, the East Side Railway Company put in force a new time card, which gives a much better service, the cars running at intervals of only 40 minutes from 7 o’clock in the morning till after 6 in the evening, and after that they run 80 minutes apart till 11:40, at which time the last car leaves both ends of the road.

I remember as a very young child being able to walk a few blocks with my mother and get on the streetcar at Concord Road then riding it to Oregon City to visit my father at work. We would shop at the stores on Main Street and visit the drug store fountain before riding back home. I respect those who oppose the MAX line to Milwaukie, but I miss the days of the streetcar and believe that our great-great grandchildren will hear their elders reminiscing about the days when everyone had their own car, or two, and “only” paid $3.50 a gallon for gasoline.

The Portland-Oregon City electric railway began service in 1893 and continued in service until 1958. The original track line through Oak Grove to Gladstone has recently been restored as a walking & biking trail.