“An Act of Providence”: A Union Pacific Train Wreck on San Jose Creek near Puente, 16 February 1927

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

We are in one of those exceptional winters in which, instead of receiving the bulk of our rainfall in the first couple months of the year, we have, so far, had most of our rain earlier in the season.  January was essentially bone dry and we had just a middling shower earlier this month.

It was a far different situation in 1927 when a monster storm hit the region in the middle of February causing massive flooding and significant damage and destruction in greater Los Angeles.  Tonight’s highlighted artifacts from the Homestead’s holdings are stunning documents of a terrible tragedy that could have been much worse: the derailing of part of a Union Pacific train on a damaged steel trestle crossing over San Jose Creek just a few miles west of the Homestead on 16 February.

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Pomona Bulletin, 16 February 1927.

The Los Angeles Limited, commonly called a “crack train,” making a transcontinental trip with just fifteen passengers paying special fares, left downtown Los Angeles a little after 6 p.m.  It was just slightly more than a half-hour later when the heavy train approached the trestle, which, because of the powerful storm and heavy rainfall, had been tested with a “feeler” car not long before and deemed passable.  Yet, as the train made its way across the bridge, which spanned the creek some five stories above, it suddenly buckled and collapsed.

The locomotive obviously was the first to careen off the crumpled trestle and engineer Charles Ireland, who was 66 and filling in for the regular engineer on the train (Sam Houston, who’d been replaced before a 1923 wreck that killed his replacement), tried to jump out.  Horrifically, he was caught under the tumbling car and so badly crushed that only portions of his body were recovered in the initial aftermath.

Los Angeles Times, 17 February 1927.

Two mail cars and the dining car followed the locomotive into the creek and it was first feared that a brakeman in one of the mail cars was drowned, but after an assessment it was found that he survived.  An early report from the Sheriff’s Department indicated a cook in the dining car died, but that proved to be false, though he was badly scalded.  Other employees suffered significant injuries, including three who were badly burned and a black waiter, W.H. Bolden, whose feet were seriously injured.  One passenger, a Salt Lake City hotel owner, had some major injuries, as well, but early reporting suggested there were fears of other casualties among passengers in the dining car.

Whittier News, 16 February 1927.

The Los Angeles Times noted that rising waters and swirling currents were such that

the raging torrent also was undermining the abutment on the west bank on which two of the train coaches were left precariously perched in the wreck.  Should the abutment be further weakened these two coaches likewise will tumble into the stream to add to the confusion and difficulty of the rescue workers.

While it was reported that the death toll was expected to rise, specifically a 19-year old cook whose condition was, for a time, precarious, and there was one additional passengers who were treated at the Murphy Memorial Hospital in Whittier, while a few others who were taken there but were not admitted.  Given the severity of the accident, it was remarkable that more people were not killed or injured.

Pomona Bulletin, 18 February 1927.

As to the train, there were five cars (locomotive, mail and baggage, dining, an express for passengers, and a Pullman) that were destroyed or damaged, along with the bridge, and the Union Pacific initially estimated the financial loss to be about $150,000.  The dining car was completely submerged and the flood waters rose in the immediate aftermath of the accident.  The Pullman was standing nearly vertical with one end in the creek and the other lying against the steep bank.  On the other side, the express car was lengthwise and on its side against a dislodged girder.  Finally, the locomotive was upside down and near the east bank of the creek.

Trains heading east from Los Angeles were redirected to use the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe route through the northern part of the San Gabriel Valley, while crews of hundreds of men worked furiously to take down the remainder of the wrecked trestle and build a bypass before starting on a new bridge.

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The extent of damage and destruction wrought by the flood from the Los Angeles Times, 17 February 1927.

Even with the heavy rain that followed the next day, the spectacle drew thousands of bystanders and the volume was so heavy that the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors ordered a shut down of Workman Mill Road, which crossed the creek very near the accident site, to all but local residents for a few days because the onlookers were impairing the ability of workers to clear the scene and begin needed repairs.

A coroner’s jury held an inquest at the site because of Ireland’s death and it determined that “excessive storm waters” caused the weakening of the bridge and the derailment, though it was revealed during testimony that, an hour before, a freight train with up to seventy cars crossed the span.  It was added that inspectors were particularly cautious in their examination before the Limited, which was traveling at about 35 mph when it reached the bridge, was permitted to proceed.  The official determination was that the accident was due to an “act of Providence.”

Times, 29 April 1927.

One of the injured railroad employees, Claude Hartzheim, sued the Union Pacific in March for $30,000, claiming “carelessness and negligence” led to his being permanently hurt, though there was no disposition of his case located, possibly suggesting that the matter was settled out of court.

At the end of April, it was reported that examiners from the Interstate Commerce Commission, a federal regulatory agency concerned with transportation between states, determined that the tragedy “was due to improper inspection by the railroad engineering staff.”  The Times pointed out the discrepancy between this finding and the coroner’s jury’s determination of the “act of Providence” and testimony that the damage to the trestle was “hidden beyond even cautious inquiry” from Union Pacific inspectors.

A dramatic close-up photograph from the Homestead’s collection of the partially submerged dining car of the train in the roaring floodwaters of San Jose Creek.

The photos from the museum’s collection are striking close-up views.  One shows the partially submerged dining car amid swirling water while the steel supports for the span are in disarray.  The second view shows several men standing near the crumpled bridge on which most of a badly mangled car rests, while debris is scattered in the foreground.

At the time this tragedy occurred, efforts to deal with flood control in greater Los Angeles were being significantly ramped up, including new dams in the San Gabriel Mountains and other elements.  In subsequent years, the federal government, through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took on responsibility for developing a massive program of flood control projects.

A badly mangled car and twisted steel from the bridge are among the striking elements of this image from the museum’s holdings.

The last time San Jose Creek, which passes just a few hundred yards south of the Homestead and flooded the ranch very near the historic houses in 1927, overflowed was in the torrential rains of the winter of 1968-69, about the time the Pomona Freeway (State Route 60) was being built through the area.

Shortly afterward, the creek was rerouted (it used to closely follow the Puente Hills and supply water for William Workman’s grist mill near the 60/605 interchange before it turned southwest to its terminus with the San Gabriel River) and turned into a fully cemented flood control channel.  This was designed to efficiently and rapidly send runoff downstream, including to a county reclamation plan, opened in 1971 and very near where the 1927 derailment occurred and on to the San Gabriel River.


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