Two Spokane & Inland Empire Railroad Co. trains collide northwest of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, with disastrous results, on July 31, 1909.

  • By Daryl C. McClary
  • Posted 7/31/2005
  • Essay 7403
On Saturday, July 31, 1909, 16 passengers are killed and more than 100 are injured and maimed when two electric interurban trains owned by the Spokane & Inland Empire Railroad Company collide head-on at Gibbs, Idaho, approximately two miles northwest of Coeur d'Alene (some 30 miles from Spokane). The trains, linking Spokane with Coeur d'Alene, are carrying an estimated 600 passengers who are on their way to bid for Indian reservation lands. During this land rush, crowds are so large that the railroad is operating special trains on open schedules, running every 15 to 20 minutes. On a single-track electric railway, it is a blueprint for disaster.

Homestead Act of 1909

In February 1909, Congress made available to the public, under the provisions of the Homestead Act, 668,000 acres of federal land located on three Indian reservations: the Coeur d’Alene Reservation in Idaho, the Flathead Reservation in Montana, and the Spokane Reservation in Washington.  The U. S. Treasury Department, General Land Office, designated the courthouse in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, as the headquarters for the lottery and Judge James W. Witten as the Superintendent of Opening. 

Starting at midnight July 15, and lasting until midnight August 5, 1909, eligible persons had 22 days to register in Spokane, Coeur d'Alene, and Missoula and submit a notarized application card by mail in a special blue envelope, for a chance to file a claim for a homestead.  There was a wild rush to register, flooding the “Inland Empire” with thousands of land-seekers.  The central land office in Coeur d’Alene received 286,848 applications for 4,160 available claims, exceeding the famous Oklahoma land run of 1889.

The Spokane & Inland Empire Railroad Company, incorporated in Washington state in 1906, was an alliance of small, local interurban railroads linking Spokane and surrounding communities with Lake Coeur d'Alene, a popular resort and recreational area.  Electric interurban railroads often had three or more cars coupled together in a train.  The cars had platforms in the front and rear with seating in the center section.  Platforms were standing room only.  Although a car might have a seating capacity of only 50 or 60 passengers, it could carry at least that many more standing in the aisle and on the platforms.  Open streetcars hauled even more passengers hanging onto the outside of the car.

During the 22-day registration period crowds became so large that the Spokane & Inland Empire Railroad operated special trains on open schedules, running every 15 to 20 minutes. No restrictions were placed on the number of passengers allowed on board the cars.  People occupied every available space: window sills, coach roofs, cowcatchers and atop the running gear. The company daily transported 6,000 to 10,000 passengers and on one day counted 14,000 fares.  The Great Northern and Northern Pacific Railroads also ran several extra trains per day for the land rush.

The Catastrophe

At about 4:35 p.m. on Saturday, July 31, 1909, special train No. 5, westbound to Spokane with three cars, crashed head-on with the regular train No. 20, eastbound with four cars, at the La Crosse siding (now Gibbs, Idaho) approximately two miles northwest of Coeur d’Alene.  The two trains were carrying an estimated 600 passengers between them.

The motormen, James Delaney in No 20 and Edgar E. Campbell in No 5, caught sight of each other when the trains were 800 feet apart, too late to prevent the collision.  Train No. 20 came to a complete stop in 200 feet, and people in the lead car began jumping for their lives.  Train No 5 attempted to stop as well, but the air brakes on the overloaded train failed. The special train ran into the regular train at about 20 miles per hour.  The impact telescoped the two lead cars into each other, immediately killing 12 passengers riding on the front platform of train No 5 and severely injuring and maiming more than 100 other people.

Help arrived quickly from Coeur d'Alene.  As doctors treated the severely injured, workers from the nearby Stack-Gibbs lumber mill kept busy with jackscrews, axes, and wrecking bars, clearing out debris and rescuing trapped passengers.  The Spokane & Inland Empire Railroad Company dispatched a special train from Spokane with doctors, nurses, and medical supplies to care for and transport casualties. 

Most of the critically injured were rushed to hospitals in Spokane and Coeur d’Alene. Others were cared for in nearby homes.  Twelve dead bodies were taken to local funeral parlors to await identification.  Four victims died a few days later in Coeur d’Alene Hospital.

The Investigation

On Monday, August 2, 1909, the Spokane & Inland Empire Railroad Company publicly asked for a full investigation, acknowledging full legal responsibility for the accident and urging injured passengers to submit their claims early for a quick settlement.  This same day, Kootenai County Coroner Frank Wenz convened an inquest to investigate the cause of the tragedy.

At the inquest, Superintendent R. C. Bowdish testified that the Spokane & Inland Empire Railroad Company operated a single-track electric railway between Spokane and Coeur d’Alene with traffic flowing briskly in both directions.  It was operated under standard railroad rules with regular trains having the right-of-way over all special or extra trains.  Regular trains ran on fixed timetables while special trains were governed by telegraphic orders from a dispatcher in Spokane.  Bowdish said that unless there were specific orders to the contrary, it was required that a special train be clear of the main line at any point five minutes before the regular train was due at that point according to the time table.  Should a regular train be late, the special train must keep the track clear until it arrives.  Siding tracks were designated as meeting points allowing trains to pass safely. Bowdish said that both motorman Edgar E. Campbell and conductor Horace G. Whittlesey of special train No. 5 were experienced railway men who had worked for the company for several years and knew the rules.

Testimony showed that on the day of the wreck, eastbound regular No. 20 was due at Coeur d’Alene at 4:12 p.m., but was running late because of the large crowds. Special train No. 5 pulled out of the Coeur d'Alene yard at about 4:30 p.m. without waiting for the regular train to arrive. This caused the accident.  A large part of the company’s testimony was directed toward showing that the brakes on both trains were in good working order and that overcrowding the cars was unavoidable.

The evidence included a bedside statement at Coeur d'Alene Hospital from critically injured Edgar E. Campbell, motorman of train No. 5, who claimed he had orders from the train dispatcher to meet the eastbound regular train No. 20 at the La Crosse siding, allowing it to pass.  Campbell stated he saw train No. 20 just after departing the yard.  He immediately shut off the power and applied the emergency air brakes.  The train was slowing when the system lost air pressure, releasing the brakes.  Campbell said he attempted to reverse the motor but was unable to stop the train in time to prevent the collision.

Expert witnesses testified that the air brakes should have stopped the train inside of 300 feet had they been working properly.  The air-brake system was destroyed in the wreck, so the cause of the failure could not be determined.  Other testimony showed that Campbell and Whittlesey misunderstood the dispatch and should have waited for regular train No 20 to arrive at Coeur d’Alene before leaving the yard.

Verdict and Aftermath

On Friday afternoon, August 6, 1909, the corner's jury returned their verdict, laying the blame on the Spokane & Inland Empire Railroad Company's operating procedures.  The jury determined that although the special train had no right to leave the Coeur d’Alene station until the eastbound regular train had arrived, it pulled out, intending to wait on the La Cross siding at the edge of the yards.  Although against the rules, this had become the standard practice during the land rush.  Motorman Campbell unintentionally ran past the siding switch, causing the collision.

Edgar E. Campbell, who had his pelvis crushed, limbs broken and one leg amputated, was forced to sue the Spokane & Inland Empire Railroad Company in federal court to recover damages for personal injuries.  At issue was whether the train’s defective air brakes or Campbell’s unauthorized departure from the station was the immediate cause of the accident.  The case went to trial and the jury returned a general verdict in favor of the plaintiff Campbell, who was awarded $7,500 in damages.  However there were special findings, which determined that both the motorman and the brake malfunction caused the wreck.  The company appealed the verdict based on the special findings, but the judgment was affirmed by the Circuit Court of Appeals and finally by the U. S. Supreme Court on June 12, 1916.

As luck would have it, not one of the victims killed or injured in the train wreck who registered for the lottery was selected for a chance to claim a homestead.  The Spokane & Inland Empire Railroad Company made huge profits during the 1909 land run, but lost most of it in damage settlements.  The company survived the 1909 crisis and continued doing business until January 9, 1919, when it went into receivership.

List of the Dead

  • John H. Cox, Medical Lake, Washington
  • William A. Dahlquist, Eatherville, Louisiana
  • Herman Gilbert, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho
  • Darrell Golden, Spokane, Washington
  • Frances Golden, Spokane, Washington
  • W. J. House, Cheney, Washington
  • J. C. Krause, Spokane, Washington
  • W. L. Perry, Spokane, Washington
  • Mr. A. B. McDonald, Drummond, Montana
  • Mrs. A. B. McDonald, Drummond, Montana
  • Fred McGarry, Spokane, Washington
  • Orville Pauterbaugh, Elkhart, Indiana
  • John A. Vence, Springfield, Missouri
  • William Alan Ward, Wenatchee, Washington
  • A. P. Whitley, Memphis, Tennessee
  • William S. Wonsetler, Harrington, Washington

Sources: Robert Singletary, Kootenai Chronicles: A History of Kootenai County, Vol. I (Coeur d’Alene: Museum of North Idaho, 1995); “Dozen Die and Scores Injured in Trolley Crash” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 1, 1909, p. 1; “Crowds Waiting at Electric Line Station to Start Big Rush for Coeur d’Alene,” Ibid., August 1, 1909, sec. 2, p. 1; “Death Hovers Over Victims of Trolley Accident,” Ibid., August 2, 1909, p. 1; “Inquest Is Held on Spokane Wreck,” Ibid., August 3, 1909, p. 5; “Railroad Invites Damage Claims,” Ibid., August 3, 1909, p. 12; “Fourteen victims of Spokane Wreck,” Ibid., August 4, 1909, p. 5; “Break Records in Wild Rush for Federal Lands,” Ibid., August 6, 1909, p. 1; “Collision Blamed to Special Train,” Ibid., August 7, 1909, p. 9, “Coroner’s Jury Lays Blame on the Special,” Ibid., August 9, 1909, p. 9; “Thirteen Die in Train Wreck,” The Seattle Times, August 1, 1909, p. 1; “Twelve Dead and 102 Hurt,” Ibid., August 2, 1909, p. 5; “Train Wreck to be Publicly Probed,” Ibid., August 3, 1909, p. 22; “300,000 to Draw for Indian Land,” The (Spokane) Spokesman-Review, July 14, 1909, p. 1; “Land Lottery Rush Is On,” Ibid., July 15, 1909, p. 1; “Two Trains That Are Loaded With Landseekers Crash Head-on at La Crosse,” Ibid., August 1, 1909, p. 1; “Passenger Jumps Ere Trains Meet,” Ibid., August 1, 1909, p. 9; “Number of Injured In Inland Wreck Swells to 102,” Ibid., August 2, 1909, p. 1; “Dying Motorman Tells of Wreck,” Ibid., August 2, 1909, p. 1; “Two Added to Death List; Wreck Victims Now 14,” Ibid., August 3, 1909, p. 1; “New Wreck Victim Found,” Ibid., August 3, 1909, p. 7; “Railroad Ready to Meet Claims,” Ibid., August 3, 1909, p. 1; “Wreck Death List May Swell to 18,” Ibid., August 4, 1909, p. 1; “Wreck Inquest This Morning,” Ibid., August 6, 1909, p. 9; “Wreck Blame Laid On Crew and Road,” Ibid., August 7, 1909, p. 1; “Wreck Victims Recover,” Ibid., August 7, 1909, p. 6; “Another Added to Wreck Death List,” Ibid., August 9, 1909, p. 7.

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