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Lehcarjt
11-22-2011, 02:39 AM
I'm trying to recreate (with some literary license) a real narrow-gauge train accident that occurred in California in 1880.

I've got a few conflicting reports of what happened (from passengers' and newspaper reports) and have pulled together what (I think) is a reasonable scenario. There's a couple things that don't make sense to me though, so I thought I'd throw it up here to see if you guys have thoughts or suggestions.

This was the grand-opening trip of this railroad. There was an engine pulling four open-aired flat cars that had been fitted with seats. The train took its passengers up into the mountains to a Redwood picnic area where they stayed for the afternoon.

Since there was no way to turn around, the engine then had to push the cars back to the starting station. As they were going down a particularly steep hill, the engineer noticed they were going to fast. He signaled the flatcar conductor to brake. There was no response. “The train jerked into a curve and began swaying too much. Suddenly there was a bump, and a series of bumps, as several of the cars jumped the tracks. Elliot (The engineer) was braking now, but he knew it was too late. “ (Quote taken from the book California Disasters 1800 – 1900).


This all happened on the side of a really steep hill. When the passengers realized something was wrong with the train they moved en mass away from the open gorge below. When the cars derailed they were thrown (uphill sortof, I guess) into the side of the mountain.

So my questions…

First, it seems odd to me that the engine’s brakes would be secondary to the flatcars brakes. Is that correct?

Second, does the flatcar conductor sit at the very end of the very last car and turn a giant wheel to slow the cars? (which is how I visualize it) In my story, I want to have him fail to brake because he’d dead, but I want to make sure that will work. (keeping mind that if they train was moving backwards, the flatcar conductor would be up front).

Third, in real life a lot of people died, but a lot also survived. I want my hero to do something heroic to save my heroine. Right how I have him throwing her and himself free from the car into the side of the mountain where they both receive minimal injuries. I’d love a better suggestion though.

Many thanks!

Snick
11-22-2011, 02:55 AM
First, it seems odd to me that the engine’s brakes would be secondary to the flatcars brakes. Is that correct?

The engine would usually slow with the throttle and use brakes only for the final stop.


Second, does the flatcar conductor sit at the very end of the very last car and turn a giant wheel to slow the cars? (which is how I visualize it) In my story, I want to have him fail to brake because he’d dead, but I want to make sure that will work. (keeping mind that if they train was moving backwards, the flatcar conductor would be up front).

Apparently, this ttrain would have had mechanical brakes; wlthough airbrakes were becoming about this time. With mechanical brakes there would have beena brakeman on each car ready to apply the brakes. If there were only one person applying the brakes, then there was something odd. Either they did have airbrakes,or the other brakemen were taking breaks.You might want to research the kind of brakes this thing had.


Third, in real life a lot of people died, but a lot also survived. I want my hero to do something heroic to save my heroine. Right how I have him throwing her and himself free from the car into the side of the mountain where they both receive minimal injuries. I’d love a better suggestion though.

Many thanks!

Since the train did go over the edge and many people dies, you can't have him do much more, but you could have him throw a child or two to the woman, just before he jumps, as the car drops over the cliff.

Lehcarjt
11-22-2011, 03:25 AM
Thanks, but Grrr... Because there isn't much more information (that I've been able to find) and the conductor braking first bugs me. The newspaper articles of the time are all a bit vague or directly conflicting each other (even on which direction the train was traveling).

Just to clarify, the cars spilled the people into the hillside, so no one went into the gorge (although I'm now thinking I should double check that).

Lehcarjt
11-22-2011, 03:42 AM
Continuing on the brakeman problem, I did a bit of searching on the rail-line itself rather than the accident (duh, I suppose, but I'm a linear thinker) and dug up this almost immediately. (on the South Pacific Coast Railroad):

With only hand brakes and link and pin couplers, they routinely ran 50 car trains.

The railroad was used mostly for lumber and agg products. This passenger train was something unusual. Would that make having no air-brakes sound right? And are 'hand brakes' the same thing as the mechanical brakes that I'm imagining?

(Thanks again)

jclarkdawe
11-22-2011, 06:19 AM
I don't remember exactly where the Westinghouse air brake was invented, but it was sometime in this period. However, narrow-gauge railroads were not terribly good about keeping up with technology and didn't have to worry about interchange (where railcars go from one railroad to another), so they didn't have much incentive to keep up with things. Further, if you didn't run passengers, the standards are also less.

So, yes, link-and-pin couplers and hand brakes were the norm for a narrow-gauge in 1880.

The brakes would have been on a pedestal on one end of each flatcar. Basically a wheel, you spin it to tighten and loosen the brakes. A brakeman or the conductor would go from car to car, based upon whistle signals from the engineer, tightening and loosening the brakes. On a large train, a brakeman could handle ten or more cars.

Even now, train braking consists of several different types of applications. The engineer back then could produce a small amount of braking by shutting off the throttle. However, going downhill, he probably had the throttle closed or pretty close to closed. But the drag of the engine would not have been very much in this situation.

Then you have the engine brakes. In a train this size, the engine probably weighed as much as the rest of the train. Even so, the engine brakes weren't that good back then, and would not have been strong enough to hold the train on a slope.

Then you have the brakes on the individual cars. Although they provided some friction, and could hold the train, they weren't that good.

Understand that a modern train can take a mile or more to stop, with a lot better brakes. And in the case of a runaway train (which this was), the stopping distance will make a one mile stop something to be hoped for. A runaway train can easily go five or more miles before stopping.

Also you should be aware that somewhere in the government, there should be an accident report of this incident.

Also you should be aware that minus the passengers, this was probably how they ran trains all the time. So the crew was used to backing down the hill.

And for an interesting question, did the conductor survive?

What appears most likely to have happened is the engineer starts backing the train to start the return trip. For some reason (which may have involved what the engineer was drinking during the picnic), the train began picking up speed. The engineer whistled for brakes, which may or may not have been applied. Understand that the engineer's story involves him not wanting to get blamed for this.

As the speed continues to increase, the engineer whistles for emergency braking. Again, they may or may not have been applied. It's very possible for the brakes on the car to locked down all the way as the steel wheels slide on the steel track.

By the way, the train crew should have consisted of an engineer, a fireman, one or two brakemen, and the conductor. The conductor is in charge of the train. The brakemen, for a passenger train, could be working as assistant conductors, dealing with the passengers. It's possible the conductor and the brakemen, if any, were too involved with the passengers, to immediately worry about braking. It's also possible the conductor and brakemen were drinking the same stuff that the engineer was.

If they were used to running 50 car trains, loaded with logs, this train would have seemed like a breeze to handle. Combined with the party-like atmosphere, and less stringent standards for drinking, you could have some serious problems.

Interestingly enough, passenger specials for picnics and things like that, suffered more than their share of accidents.

I'd take the newspaper and eyewitness accounts with a large grain of salt. If you want real answers, you need to find the accident investigation.

Best of luck,

Jim Clark-Dawe

Lehcarjt
11-22-2011, 08:15 AM
Understand that the engineer's story involves him not wanting to get blamed for this.

Excellent point. The account in front of me seems to be from the engineer's point of view. This was his first time on these tracks (the railroad in total had just barely been completed), and the account makes a point of outlining that he did everything proper and it was all the brakeman's fault.


If you want real answers, you need to find the accident investigation.


Yup, I think you're right. Time to call a librarian and see if the accident record can be hunted up.

On the other hand I somehow have to get everything down to two or three small, but pertinent details as my heroine isn't going to know or care about what really happened and the real passenger accounts pretty much said it all happened so fast, they couldn't tell what was going on. This is honestly one of the things I love and hate about writing historicals. Massive amounts of research for a two word description.

Snick
11-22-2011, 03:31 PM
If you can find a report of the investigation, then you will be in much better shape. The Westinghouse brake was introducd in the '70'a, but it took a very long time for it to be in general use.

With hand brakes there usually was a brakeman or conductor for each car. That remained the norm after the unions gaine influence, and the great numbers of people running a train became a problem that helped the RR's to become bankrupt.

Snick
11-23-2011, 02:19 AM
See if you can find anything about a trial of someone with regard to this. someone probably tried to sue the rail company. you might have to look at superior curt records.


if you can't find what you want, then remember that you are writing fiction, so you can make things up.

Lehcarjt
11-23-2011, 06:09 AM
if you can't find what you want, then remember that you are writing fiction, so you can make things up.

Yup. I'll work on it a bit more after the holidays, but I've found for most of the really obscure information I have to drive up to UC Berkley and I can't do that on a regular basis till my kids are older.

But I do like to at least make an good attempt at getting things right. Of course the details I just take for granted are the one I probably get totally wrong.

Snick
11-23-2011, 03:36 PM
"Getting things right" in fiction doesn't mean writing accurate history.

Lehcarjt
11-23-2011, 08:04 PM
I agree. It's more the logic of what is happening and details to enhance the story - especially if they are things the character would know/experience, but the audience would not.

Snick
11-23-2011, 10:10 PM
Considering that the printed accounts differed from each other, the people who were there probably had no clear idea of what was going on. Your fictional account may end up being a better account of what did happen than anything else. I'll check it out when I get my time machine out of the garage.

jclarkdawe
11-24-2011, 08:04 AM
Since you're in California, you might want to plan a trip to Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum (http://www.ncngrrmuseum.org/). Narrow gauge is a lot different than standard gauge and that different feel will be as obvious to you as it was to the riders back then. (I'm assuming you've ridden standard gauge trains here.) Plus riding on a flat car with chairs or benches on it is different. But instead of the four or more people abreast you get on standard gauge, you're more likely only looking at two or three across. Plus you can see why the brakemen had problems getting to the brakes.

Best of luck,

Jim Clark-Dawe

Lehcarjt
11-28-2011, 09:00 AM
Nevada... So close yet so far.

By chance the real narrow gauge railroad has been turned into a train park so I've ridden on a similar flat car in a similar environment. I've been meaning to 'gift' my hubby with a day riding with the engineers - which he would absolutely love!