1902 Train Wreck – Part 1

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Originally published February 5, 2010 – Oh eBay, the bane of human existence. I am here to confess a love/hate relationship with that online money pit. Always looking for interesting material that may provide fodder for this column I occasionally search the infamous auction site for things Tempe.

O.K. I meant to say every day. And I am always facing bidding competition from a few local diehards who covet this stuff as much as I.

Recently an issue of Leslie’s Weekly was offered. Leslie’s was a popular illustrated news magazine Frank Leslie started in 1852. On sale was a 1903 copy featuring an article about Arizona’s most disastrous train wreck ─ accompanied by two photographs.

I won’t reveal how much I paid for the magazine, primarily because my wife has been known to read the column from time to time. Need I say more?

When Tempe made national headlines in 1902, it wasn’t for the reason people would have desired.

On a beautiful October 29, 1902 evening, the Maricopa and Phoenix and Salt River Valley Railroad Company, which connected the Valley to the rest of the world, pulled out of the Phoenix station at about 6:30pm for its routine run to Tucson.

Behind steam locomotive No.6 were three freight cars, one empty, one filled with cattle, another packed with machinery. They were followed by a deluxe Pullman passenger car and two coach cars.

Less than a half-hour later the lives of all on board would be changed forever.

In a colorful narrative, Leslie’s relates the story of a catastrophe they boldly described as “…the most curious wreck in the history of railroad disasters.”

The “…train was rushing across the Tempe Bridge, eight miles from Phoenix, when a span of the bridge gave way, hurling the engine and three cars to the dry, sandy bed below.”

For unexplained reasons a span at the center of the river channel collapsed resulting in a twenty foot fall.

“For those who believe in divine providence here may be cited as an instance. The fourth car, filled with (30-40) passengers, hung poised over the edge, teetering apparently in a shiver of doubt. Had it fallen it must have dragged the next car with it, and the occurrence of both would have been crushed in the debris. It hung, however, half on and half off the bridge, as if ready to jump into space, tipped down at quite an angle toward the ground. The passengers all got out safely.”

Leslie’s goes on to report “The only fatality in this accident was that of a Pima Indian who was stealing a ride and got caught in the debris.” The death was apparently the result of the interlopers fall from the top of a car where he was riding.

The only other casualties were four cattle that were killed from the perilous drop.

There is more to this spectacular accident that put tiny Tempe onto the world’s stage. We’ll finish the story next week.

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