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.