Fog. Fatality. Finger-pointing: Fact and Fiction
Fog. Fatality. Finger-pointing
The dense fog that shrouded the Mississippi River Valley in the early morning hours of Oct. 15, 1912 was the culprit behind one of the worst rail disasters in St. Paul’s history but human error was also to blame. Exactly whose error, however, remains a mystery.
Just before sunrise on that fateful autumn morning, bridge tender Lymann Tibbetts was busy managing the Saint Paul Bridge and Terminal Company swing bridge, located about three miles south of the city. Around 6 a.m., the riverboat Hiawatha churning upstream sounded a long blast from its steam whistle to instruct Tibbetts to open the span so it could pass through en route to St. Paul from Rock Island, Ill. Tibbetts obliged and returned a single long blast from his steam whistle once it was safe to proceed. As he watched the ship slowly maneuver past the piers of the steel truss bridge, he heard the rumble of a train approaching from the east bank. He quickly sounded a short blast from his whistle to warn the engineer to stop but the train continued chugging toward him. Alarmed, he reportedly signaled another short blast in an attempt to get the engineer’s attention, then soon watched in horror as the headlight of Engine No. 10 broke through the fog and dropped over the edge of the single track bridge, plunging nearly 25 feet to the chilly water below. An article in The St. Paul Dispatch described the grisly scene: the hiss of steam sizzling from the engine’s boiler, the splintering and cracking of wooden boxcars, the bellowing and squealing of hundreds of cattle, hogs and sheep, which soon perished.
According to Pioneer Press archives, five men were aboard the train that was transporting eight carloads of livestock to the stockyards in South St. Paul. Engineer Charles C. Cramer, 37, was killed in the accident. Fireman Frank Weber and switchman James Garvin both suffered head injuries, resulting in neither being able to recall details of the crash. The conductor and switchman were in the caboose and avoided injury because their car broke free during the accident, which occurred at 6:40 a.m. A photo of the wreck reveals that the span was nearly realigned but there is no mention of whether Tibbetts was in the process of closing it before the crash. If he was, it appears minutes in timing would have made a world of difference.
David Riehle, who did extensive research for an article published in the summer 2003 issue of Ramsey County History magazine, discovered that Cramer was an experienced engineer who made the crossing repeatedly to transport livestock between the Hoffman Avenue yards in St. Paul and the South St. Paul stockyards. The crossings must have been stressful for him because he told co-workers that he had several dreams about going off the bridge. The article also sheds light on the role that whistle-signaling played in the tragedy. Protocol was for an approaching train to sound four short bursts to receive signal instructions on how to proceed. One short blast in reply meant “Do not proceed. Bridge is open.” Two blasts meant “Proceed.” This fuels the controversy over whether Tibbetts should have sounded the second blast, or if Cramer simply misjudged the distance to the bridge.
Legal briefs on file at the Minnesota Historical Society document the finger-pointing that occurred after the accident. Cramer’s widow, Willa, filed a complaint in Ramsey County District Court saying Tibbetts “wrongfully, erroneously and negligently signaled and directed [Charles Cramer] to drive said engine across the bridge while the draw was open.” The brief also alleged that the train’s brake system wasn’t properly connected. The brief filed by the Saint Paul Bridge and Terminal Company alleges it was Cramer’s fault. Citing his experience as an engineer, the company said he failed to follow protocol, which required all trains to fully stop before crossing the bridge, and to travel at speeds no greater than 8 mph.
We will never know the full story because the case was settled out of court. The Saint Paul Bridge and Terminal Company paid Willa Cramer $4,500, equivalent to two and one-half years of her husband’s wages. After funeral expenses, attorney and probate fees, the widow and mother of two, ages 10 and 13, was left with about $2,600.
Today the bridge is operated by Union Pacific Railroad and can be seen up close at Kaposia Landing Park in South St. Paul. I visited the park recently and followed the paved riverfront trail three-quarters of a mile north to the bridge. The river was still open but was slowly succumbing to winter’s grip. Snow blanketed the riverfront, ice floes were moving downriver and small wisps of fog swirled around an island in the channel. I viewed the rusty trusses of the 1,275-foot bridge, the tender’s house in the middle of the swing span, and let my eyes follow the thin line of tracks to where they disappeared into the forested east bank. In the distance a train rumbled along, producing a clatter that cut through the ages and helped me understand that progress often comes with a high cost.
A Bad Dream Comes True
Charles Cramer waited patiently in Engine No. 10 as workers at the Hoffman Avenue Stockyards in St. Paul loaded the eight cars in his train with cattle, hogs and sheep. The vibration of the idling engine was hypnotic, causing him to enter a dreamlike state as he stared into the dark, crisp October morning. A yard worker approached and banged powerfully on the side of the engine below Cramer’s window to get his attention.
Startled, Cramer jumped in his seat and swung his head toward the sound. The man raised his thumbs and then pointed down the railway, indicating the train was loaded and ready to go. Cramer returned the thumbs-up gesture and throttled the engine forward, feeling the familiar drag as the stationary cars lunged ahead and followed the powerful engine. The livestock lowed and bleated as their weight shifted against each other and they shuffled to find footing amidst the motion.
The train was headed to the South St. Paul Stockyards just a few miles away, where the livestock would be slaughtered at the packing houses there. Cramer had made the trip numerous times and instinctively went about his duties for the short jaunt through the forested Mississippi River valley. As the train approached the river it became engulfed in dense, soupy fog. He eased off the power and rumbled along slowly. The headlamp of his engine did little to pierce through the mire and illuminated only a few yards of track in front of him. Cramer gazed into the fog and struggled to get a bearing of where he was along the route he knew so well. He felt weightless, like being suspended in space.
He pulled his pocket watch from his trousers, popped open the lid and looked at the hands, trying to estimate how long he’d been traveling. He knew he must be near the river bridge so he slid open his window and listened intently for the bridge tender’s signal – one short blast from his steam whistle would warm him to stop; two short blasts would tell him the swing bridge was aligned and safe to cross. A feeling of uneasiness washed over him, reminding him of his reoccurring dream of making this crossing when the bridge was open for riverboat traffic. In his dream he could see the tracks but never the bridge, and when it suddenly appeared he frantically worked the brakes and watched in horror as he screeched toward the edge of the bridge and then tilted toward the river below. He always awoke just before his train plunged into the swirling current. Now, as he traveled through the fog, his mind played tricks on him and he wondered if he were indeed dreaming. To assure himself he was not, he put his arm out the window to feel the cool, moist air, and he touched the cold steel of the sweating locomotive.
Suddenly, he heard the shrill of one short blast of the bridge tender’s whistle so he eased off the throttle and prepared to stop, but then he heard another whistle blast. Hmmm, he thought. Must be safe to cross. Before he could think another thought he felt a feeling of weightlessness again, and then gravity sucked at him and his world went black.
His wife Willa was sleeping in their bed at home, safe and warm. It was nearly time for her to rise and wake their two children for school but she rolled over, longing for a few more moments of precious slumber. Her hand drifted to the other side of the bed and felt the empty space beside her. Subconsciously she thought of her husband and wondered how he was. The sun was just cresting the horizon and its soft rays were filtering through their bedroom window. And in the distance the mournful bellowing and squealing of hundreds of animals was piercing the morning air.
Minnesota Historical Society photo