Comparatively unknown is this story of Santa Barbara County’s worst disaster in terms of lives lost — the 1907 train wreck, which killed 32 people.
Early on the afternoon of May 11, 1907, an excursion train pulled out of Santa Barbara heading for San Francisco. The locomotive, with its tender, baggage, and dining cars and four sleepers, carried two groups of Shriners, one from Buffalo, New York, the other from Reading, Pennsylvania. The men, many traveling with their wives, had spent the morning sightseeing after arriving from Los Angeles, where they had attended a national conference.
About 65 miles out from Santa Barbara, between Point Arguello and Surf, something went terribly wrong. The train was traveling around 35 miles an hour when the engineer, Charles Champlain, heard a loud metallic crack. A few seconds later, the locomotive left the tracks and plunged ahead about 100 yards before the cowcatcher caught the ground, flipping the engine on its side. Champlain was thrown from the cab and knocked unconscious, and suffered a broken arm. He was lucky. The brakeman had his spine snapped; the fireman was scalded when the boiler burst. These injuries would prove fatal.
The train took on the aspect of a collapsing spyglass. The tender plowed into the engine followed by the baggage car and the diner. Two of the sleeper cars jumped the tracks. Somehow the two remaining cars remained upright on the rails.
The baggage car and the diner were destroyed and became the scene of particular carnage. Passengers in the diner not killed by the impact died when the steam pipes, which ran through the car, broke. Trapped in the wreckage, these unfortunates were literally cooked alive. Only two people escaped. More passengers died in the two sleepers.
Fire broke out in the diner, hampering rescue efforts by survivors. Fortunately there were two flatcars with water tanks at the nearby Honda siding, and the flames were eventually doused. The uninjured conductor telegraphed for help. A relief train was quickly put together in Santa Barbara with six doctors and seven nurses. Departure was delayed for two hours before an engineer could be found to man the train. It finally arrived at Honda around 6 p.m.
The scene was chaotic. A cook was inconsolable when he could not find the chickens he was going to prepare for dinner. Another man walked around asking people if his tie was straight. A honeymooning couple, separated in the confusion, asked those treating them to assure the other that they were all right. They both died from their injuries. The wife of the flagman at Honda was cited for her efforts in bringing coffee and makeshift bandages fashioned from clothing to the injured.
Twenty-seven died at the scene; five more succumbed in ensuing days. Officials in both San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties conducted investigations. The former blamed faulty equipment, without going into any further detail; the latter stated they “cannot determine any direct cause for said wreck.” There was some speculation in the press about a switch being bad or the possibility of sabotage, but nothing definitive ever came to light. The cause behind the tragedy remains a mystery.
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Michael Redmon, director of research at the Santa Barbara Historical Museum, will answer your questions about Santa Barbara’s history. Write him c/o The Independent, 122 W. Figueroa St., Santa Barbara, CA 93101.