The Wreck of Espee No. 97
When Visalia took root in 1852, the founders obviously liked what they had created and appreciated, even more, the potential that it offered. With that in mind, they went to work promoting their new home. These early settlers knew that one almost surefire way to build a town was to get the attention of a railroad. The arrival of passenger and freight service tended to enhance a community’s image and add significantly to a positive business climate. So the first arrivals worked tirelessly to persuade railroad companies to come. In 1874, after much effort, Visalia’s dream came true and the town celebrated as the first tracks arrived, just 22 years after the town began. Even though Visalia was not on a main line, but only a spur line, it had access to anywhere in the country by rail.
But the arrival of the iron horse wasn’t without problems. Of course there was the oftentimes deafening noise generated by the big locomotive engines and the accompanying bells and whistles. And then there were the injuries that were the result of working around heavy railroad equipment, like the time a wayward crowbar went flying against Thomas Foran’s head while mechanical repairs were being made.
There were even more dramatic incidents like the one that occurred on June 2, 1914. Although sensational, fortunately the notable wreck left only minor injuries and little damage.
The event began at about 3 p.m. when Southern Pacific’s westbound passenger train #97 was pulling into Visalia, having left Exeter earlier in the day. Traveling at about 25 mph, the train, operated by Engineer Bert Meigs, was approaching the wide sweeping curve by the Mt. Whitney Steam Plant (now near E. Main just west of Ben Maddox Way). Meigs noticed a brick laying on the track, but wasn’t worried as he had experienced them before and they never had been a problem. They would just push off track as the train’s wheel came in contact.
But this time, the brick reacted differently. As soon as the locomotive hit it, the engineer felt a jar and he instinctively applied the air brakes. But they had no effect as he felt the engine slip off the rails and skid along the tracks for about 10 feet, then drop down onto the ties. The momentum of the heavy moving train forced it to skid another 200 feet, then the locomotive toppled over. The tender car was tossed across the tracks, but the derailed baggage car and the two passenger coaches remained upright.
Early reports suggested Meigs and train fireman Fred Williams were almost crushed to death as they leaped from the out-of-control train cars. Later these claims were corrected when it was learned that the two wise men stayed in the locomotive hugging the floor as it turned over.
The violent crash caused considerable excitement in town. As the dust cleared, the railroad crew and the passengers began to emerge from the wreck. Remarkably, no one was killed or even seriously injured. Would-be rescuers began arriving, but no one needed rescuing. Other than some cuts and bruises on a few people, only fireman Williams was on the injured list.
The Southern Pacific, sometimes called the Espee, moved quickly to clear the scene of the accident of debris and equipment. The company “wrecking train” arrived early in the evening, remarkably just a few hours after the accident, and by 10:45 p.m. that evening, the tracks were cleared, the damaged cars were removed, and the tracks were ready to resume traffic.
The Espee quickly assembled a “Board of Inquiry” to investigate the incident. The board was made up of three railroad officials: J. H. Dodds, Assistant Superintendent, J. Tangney, Roadmaster, and C. W. Jones, Road Foreman of Engines. Two Visalians were also selected to be on the board: William R. Spalding, Visalia lumberman, and Rollins R. Harris, manager of the Cross-Horlock Hardware Company. The board spent the day of June 4 reviewing the circumstances of the incident and hearing testimony. That evening they submitted their public report.
Their findings were interesting. They called the accident a derailment and placed the exact time of occurrence at 3:18 p.m. Company property damage was determined to be $700 to the engine, $35 to the baggage car, and track damage of $125. The only injury noted was fireman Fred Williams for which he was granted one day disability leave. Their investigation found no defects on the train wheels or the air brakes.
Their conclusion was that the derailment was caused by a brick on the track, but not just any brick; a “soft” one that crushed when hit by the train wheel. The thickness of the crushed material caused the engine wheel to rise and derail.
However, Clyde Lary, local Espee Station Agent, claimed there were two bricks on the track. He said, “There is not the slightest doubt in the world…that the wreck was caused by the two bricks, which were found on the tracks after the accident.”
Exactly how the brick or bricks got on the track was not covered in the report. It remains a mystery. The Exeter Sun newspaper publicly reported what others were thinking, “Who placed the bricks there is the question. Some say a wagon load of brick went across the track just a few moments before from which they might have fallen, while others contend that they were deliberately placed there by someone.”
Rail service in Visalia continued for many years. None of the negative aspects of the railroad diminished the benefits it provided. 1916 marked the record high mileage year for railroads throughout the country. But the years that followed saw automobiles, airplanes, buses, and trucks take over, and the glory days of railroading began to subside.