In honor of our county’s 200th birthday, the Gasconade County Historical Society will be publishing an article each month about the history, events and/or stories of our county.  We hope you enjoy them. 

All Aboard!

Recalling the fatal train wreck of 1855

The race to build the first transcontinental railroad was on in the mid 1800’s.  The Pacific Railroad was one of the competitors with plans to start in St. Louis and continue to the west coast.  On July 4, 1851 construction was begun and by 1855 the rails were complete to Jefferson City.  Time to celebrate!

On Nov. 1, 1855, at 9:00 a.m. an inaugural trail pulled out of St. Louis with 600 invited guests, railroad dignitaries and legislators.  The grand event was proceeded by music and speeches.  Thomas O’Sullivan was the chief engineer.  Other invited guests were picked up along the way at various stations.  

When the train reached the Gasconade River bridge at Gasconade City, O’Sullivan considered stopping the train to check the temporary trestle, but because they were behind schedule, he opted not to delay any longer.  (A loaded gravel truck and a single locomotive had safely crossed earlier as a test.)  As the train started over the bridge at about 1:30 p.m., the span between the east band and the first pier collapsed, sending the engine and seven cars down the embankment toward the river.  Three cars derailed and fell to the side of the rails.  Only one car remained on the tracks. The engine tipped over backwards and fell on the first passenger car, which contained many of the dignitaries.  Twenty-nine passengers were killed at the scene with up to two hundred injured. The true number of deaths is unknown as simple wounds could have led to fatal infections in those days of early medicine.  Charles Eitzen, who was aboard the train, escaped with minor injuries.

Investigation of the accident found the trestle design was safe for travel up to 4 mph.  The engineer claimed his speed was 5 mph, but witnesses estimated it at 15-30 mph.  The principal engineer of the Lexington & Danville Railroad offered the opinion that excessive speed and the roughness of the new tracks had caused the locomotive to derail on the first section of the bridge, damaging the floorboard. Other opinions were that the Pacific Railroad had engaged in shoddy construction. 

Because Jefferson City had no turn around, the inaugural train was being followed by a locomotive running in reverse to bring the train back to St. Louis. Passengers and the crew helped free the dead and the trapped victims from the wreckage and loaded them into the one remaining car on the track.  The relief car, pulled by the reverse-running engine, left the wreck site at about 5 p.m., but their ordeal was not over yet.

On the way back to St. Louis, the relief train was stopped by flood waters at Boeuf Creek.  The bridge there was in danger of collapsing.  Survivors that could walk, crossed the bridge on foot and boarded a second train on the other side.  The crew then began pushing the cars across by hand. With the first car the bridge went down, leaving cars with the dead and wounded on the New Haven side of the river.  The seriously wounded were transported to Washington by ferry boat and reached St. Louis by train the next day.  The first major, deadly bridge collapse in American history occurred in Gasconade County, Missouri, on Nov. 1, 1855. 

Footnote:  A Pacific Railroad train did reach Jefferson City four months later, but their dream of being the first transcontinental train service was gone.  That goal was accomplished in1869 when the final rail spike was driven at Promontory Summit, UT, connecting Chicago to San Francisco.

Second Footnote: Next week's issue will feature an article by Ray Ham on other circumstances that surrounded the Nov. 1, 1855 train disaster.