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Barry Schrader
Columnist

 

I currently have columns running in 3 newspapers;

  • Tri-Valley Herald : Looking Back
  • Valley Times : Do You Remember?
  • The Independent : Do You Remember?

The Articles appear in the Herald and Independent on Thursdays,
and the Times on Sundays.

They will also be found on this page each week as well.

 

If you've missed any please follow the links on the dates to catch up.

Archive Page

Deadliest train wreck near Sunol 65 years ago

By Barry Schrader.................................April 13, 2006

Henrietta Greer, who lives on her ranch up Patterson Pass Road and is 98 years young, has fascinating stories to tell so I am always glad to get a phone call from her to come for a visit.

Last week she came across a September 1941 train wreck news clipping she had saved from the San Francisco Chronicle that triggered a memory of her late husband Tom taking her to see the wreckage. I managed to find more information in the Livermore papers of Sept. 26 and Oct. 3, 1941, so another column is born.

A crack passenger train, the Chicago Limited, was headed east on the Western Pacific line (now owned by Union Pacific) at 36 miles an hour on a Monday night two miles outside Sunol (on the same tracks the ACE trains travel today). A lone steam engine and coal tender had failed to move onto the siding because the engineer’s watch was 20 minutes slow, and thus a head-on catastrophic collision occurred. The passenger train engineer, fireman and baggage car employee were all killed instantly. Another seven passengers were seriously injured and taken to Livermore General Hospital for treatment. The single engine’s crew had seen the oncoming train’s headlight and tried to jump to safety but were also injured.

First local resident on the scene was Herman Koopman, then 19, who lived nearby, plus a truck driver, Joe Silva of Pleasanton, who was driving past. They summoned aid and Pleasanton Fire Chief John J. Amaral sounded the alarm for his volunteers to respond to the tragedy. The Exposition Flyer’s stewardess Miss Joan Leahy and an unnamed nurse aboard ministered to the injured until more help in the persons of Dr. Paul Dolan and Dr. H. J. Shanks arrived at the scene. Two Army sergeants, guarding prisoners headed for Leavenworth, were also injured but the paper reported they refused to leave their charges for treatment.

The wrecked engines and jumbled cars were strewn for hundreds of feet along the tracks, Henrietta recalls, when she and her late husband joined curious onlookers at the site a few days later. A freaky thing happened while they were there. A crane was attempting to remove the single engine from the entanglement and its bell began tolling. This sent a chill through the crowd, many of whom departed the scene forthwith, she reported.

An Alameda County Coroner’s Jury was convened a week later but no blame was placed at that time. They rendered an “accidental death” verdict following the inquest held at Livermore. The reason for the slow watch was never explained, even though the instrument had been confiscated at the scene by Deputy Sheriff Mark Garbini.

Pacific Locomotive Association curator Alan Frank responded to my request for more information and photos that showed various angles of the wreckage, confirming that it was the deadliest train wreck in this valley in the 20th Century. He also had photos of a November 14, 1869 collision between the Overland train from Oakland Ferry and the Hayward-Alameda local train on tracks near 48th Avenue in Oakland. The crash killed 14 and injured scores more. An aside: Alan is setting up a museum at the historic Railway on rolling stock, probably having one of the most unique museums on rails in the nation.

Henrietta also recalled another tragic accident, this one involving two amphibious PBY planes flying near their ranch in 1942 during the War. Her husband was a local Civil Defense volunteer so was called out that foggy Sunday morning. It seems the two pilots misjudged the elevation of the Altamont and plowed into the hillside, killing all 13 military personnel aboard. She said they had heard the aircrafts’ engines at low altitude prior to the impact. Two local ranchers Graham Nissen and Chris Walsted were the first to reach the scene of carnage. A sad footnote: the young widow of one of the pilots drove up to the Greer ranch a month later, asking directions to the crash scene. Returning a few hours later she displayed the crushed watch her husband had been wearing, apparently one object the cleanup crew had overlooked. The double plane crash was not reported in the press at the time because of military censorship during wartime, Henrietta added.

* * *

Rafael Garcia pointed out some errors in the Sunol Water Temple column, among them that Hetch Hetchy was built much later than the Temple, it only has 12 columns, and the Save Our Sunol group should be credited with the drive to restore the aging edifice, not just the San Francisco Water Department. He provided an excellent website to learn much more about the Temple at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sunol_Water_Temple.

 

The columnist can be reached via email at :

Historian2sbcglobal.net

or by snailmail at:

Barry Schrader
PO Box 446
Livermore, CA. 94551

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