Utah Railroad Wreck Shattered New Year's Eve in '44
The view of Promontory Point from the north tip of Fremont Island. The horrific New Year's 1944 railroad crash happened below and near Promontory. THE new year traditionally brings new expectations and new beginnings. About 70 years ago, 1945 brought a hope for the end of World War II, but it also arrived with the worst train wreck the West had ever seen.
It happened near Utah's Promontory Point on the Lucin Cutoff shortly after 6 a.m. on Dec. 31, 1944. Two westbound trains crashed, about 18 miles west of Ogden, between Little Mountain and Promontory Point, killing 48 people - including 29 U.S. Army and Navy personnel and nine railroad employees - and injuring another 83 persons, including 44 military personnel.
"Train wreck toll set at 48" and "Camera highlights of the worst train wreck in the West" were the Deseret News headlines for Jan. 1, 1945. The wreck ironically produced a bloody carnage at home only rivaled by World War II overseas.
Even today, the tragedy ranks as Utah's all-time worst train wreck. In transportation disasters in Utah, it's second only to the United Airlines DC-6 crash in Bryce Canyon National Park on Oct. 24, 1947, which killed 52 people.
George W. Ford was the Deseret News reporter who traveled to the scene of the disaster. Ford, who retired as the newspaper's managing editor in 1976, is 83 now and still lives in Salt Lake City.
His recollections of that calamity are still very vivid. "It was a cold day. It was a terrible thing," Ford said.
The train engineer of an express mail train traveling about 60 mph had a heart attack, dying a few seconds before his train slammed into the rear of a passenger and freight train going about 18 mph.
Ford said the train wreck was one of the worst disasters he saw during his long newspaper career. Only a Bryce Canyon plane crash and another in the Grand Canyon rival that disaster.
Jack E. Jarrard, a reporter at the time for the Salt Lake Telegram, covered the wreck for the city's competing afternoon paper. He and Ford are likely the only two newsmen still alive who covered the train disaster.
Another view of the Great Salt Lake, east of PromontoryPoint and west of Little Mountain. Jarrard was eventually hired by the Deseret News and retired in 1981. He said the train wreck was the worst disaster he ever covered in his long newspaper career, which spanned more than four decades.
He went along with "Scoop Williams," another reporter, and Junius Nielson, a photographer, to the scene, driving as fast as they could to get there.
Jarrard said he remembers seeing stacks of bodies. He also saw one soldier who had died sitting upright while looking out the window.
Ford's Deseret News story described a massive wreckage strewn for more than a half mile along the tracks. Seven train cars were tossed off the tracks onto the bank dropping into the Great Salt Lake.
Four other cars were telescoped together at the section station of Bagley on the railroad's main line to San Francisco. Rescue workers had to use torches in recovering the bodies from those crushed cars.
Fortunately, some of the intact railroad cars were Army hospital cars. Three trains were also dispatched from Ogden to carry the dead and wounded out.
An Ogden physician, Dr. L.S. Sycamore, was one of the first on the scene, and he described it as a bloody carnage.
"Heads, legs and arms of dozens of victims were scattered about," he told the Deseret News 50 years ago. "The wooden cars were smashed to pulp - or reduced to matches, so to speak."
David H. Mann, Deseret News photographer, also described his observations in a separate story. He spoke of heaps of bloody clothing, torn Army and Navy uniforms, scattered mail, Christmas cards and smashed suitcases and travel bags.
"Blood dripping from the side of a Pullman onto a rail where a body smashed beyond recognition was crushed into a bloody pulp the moment of the wreck," Mann wrote.
Veteran railroad men described the wreck as the worst in the history of their profession. Some of the dead and injured were veterans of the continuing world war in Europe and had been returning to their homes on the West Coast.
Several thousand people crowded the Ogden Union Station, awaiting news of the dead and injured.
Thick fog also blanketed the edge of the lake, making it difficult to see in the area. All of the wreckage and bodies were cleared away by Jan. 2. Identification of mangled bodies took longer.
One Salt Lake teen, Robert Errickson Seaman, 15, was among the local dead in the train crash. His mother, Elizabeth, was seriously injured.
(-Distilled from a Deseret News Article by Lynn Arave on Jan. 1, 1995.)