BY BOB AUBUCHON
The Union Pacific railroad is in the process of replacing a bridge over the Gasconade river at the town of Gasconade, near the confluence of the Gasconade river with the Missouri river. The existing failing bridge is well over 100 yrs old and is traversed by at least 45 trains a day, including Amtrack. The old bridge serves as a silent portal to a time line in the history of Missouri, when residents of this state found themselves in the flux of a changing country. Through that portal one can find a glimpse of a disaster that shook the lives and hearts of the entire City of St. Louis.
On July 1st, 1851, residents of St. Louis turned out to celebrate the start of construction of the Pacific Railroad, connecting St. Louis with the Pacific Ocean and California. Prominent citizens, including Mayor Luther M. Kennett, Thomas Allen, James H. Lucas, Grimsley and Edward Bates, took part in a ground breaking ceremony that included speeches, a national salute, and the reading of a poem written for the moment in history. All of St. Louis looked forward with great anticipation.
Construction of the railroad progressed slowly at first, due to the time required to make tunnels and build bridges. Irish workers, poorly fed and often on strike, were employed to construct the railroad. In two years time, the line was open to the area, now the city of Pacific. However, in less than 4 1/2 years time, by late 1855, the line was completed 125 miles west to Jefferson City. Plans were made to celebrate the construction and promote further development of the line, by a special train of invited guests and dignitaries who would travel the new route to the state capital and convene with the Governor. Included in the guest list were the Mayor and City Council of St. Louis, the National Guard and band, Company A of the St. Louis Grays, many high ranking professional and businessmen, a number of state and county officers, and representatives from other railroads. Little did the passengers know, all aboard had been invited to the single worst railroad disaster in Missouri’s history.
The train left St. Louis in a gloomy heavy rain on November 1st, 1855 with six hundred passengers aboard 14 cars. A supportive crowd cheered the train on as it departed on that rainy fall day. The atmosphere aboard the train was one of celebration. The band played and drinks were served. When the train reached Hermann, an additional car was attached to the train and a company of uniformed soldiers and a band of musicians joined the rest of the passengers.
Initially, the chief road engineer had planned to stop the train at the Gasconade River bridge, so the guests could see the new 760 foot long structure. Due to being behind schedule a fatal decision was made to not stop and continue on to the Jefferson City destination. When the train reached the bridge over the Gasconade River, the temporary wooden trestle work between the east bank and the first pier collapsed. The train plunged 36 feet into the river. Only one car remained on the tracks after the disaster. The steam engine and seven cars fell through the broken timbers, with the others cars rolling down the embankment. Over thirty individuals were killed with hundreds injured seriously. The survivors were confronted with a scene of horror. A moment of silence was soon interrupted with the hiss of the partially submerged locomotive, the shrieks of the wounded and the sounds of breaking glass and splintering wood as the trapped passengers worked to free themselves from the wreckage. The less seriously injured passengers struggled to drag the injured and dead from the wreckage and collapsed timbers. Mangled bleeding bodies were carried in the torrents of rain to nearby shanties for shelter. Late in the afternoon, many of the wounded were moved to Hermann where a hotel was converted to a temporary hospital.
The rain continued through the night and the next day when a special hospital train was sent from St. Louis to Hermann and to the wreckage scene. Survivors with few injuries worked with railroad employees to carry bodies of the dead and load them into freight cars. Survivors were loaded into passenger cars. The once soldiers of celebration, now crudely bandaged or carried on stretchers, overwhelmed by the atmosphere of tragedy, were relieved to be aboard a train to go back home. But the tragedy was prolonged by the events that followed.
When the train approached Boeuf Creek, east of the present day New Haven (17 miles east of Hermann), the hospital train was stopped. Boeuf Creek was a raging torrent and out of its banks from the continuous rain of the last two days. Trees washed down stream by the flood waters, piled up against the bridge pilings. Railroad engineers feared that this bridge would also fail if the train attempted to cross. Another train was brought from St. Louis to the east side of Boeuf Creek bridge. Survivors, able to walk, made their way across the bridge and boarded the train on the east side. The severely wounded and dead were left aboard the original hospital train. Engineers decided to push the cars across the bridge one at a time and then bring the locomotive across. Once those who could walk were clear of the bridge and aboard, the first car was pushed to the edge of the bridge. Just as the car approached, the entire bridge collapsed and disappeared into the raging flood waters. The train load of seriously injured and dead were shuttled back to Millers Landing (New Haven). Arrangements were made for a ferryboat to take them, the next day, to the town of Washington where they would once again board the hospital train to take them back to St. Louis. Through the rain filled night, 31 rough coffins were made to transport the dead. The most seriously injured finally returned to St. Louis on November 3rd.
The entire St. Louis was stunned by the disaster. Prominent citizens and leaders had been lost and included: E. Church Blackburn (president of the city council), Henry Chouteau, Calvin Case (Industrialist), and Mann Butler (attorney and Kentuckian historian). Two of the best known clergyman of the city, Rev. Dr. Artemas Bullard of the First Presbyterian Church, and Rev. John Teasdale of the Third Baptist Church were among the dead. Public mourning took place during the next two days (Sunday and Monday). Washington King, the mayor of St. Louis, survived with injuries and proclaimed Monday, the 5th day of November “a day of cessation from all labor as a tribute of respect to those who are most deeply stricken by this terrible blow, and a day of heartfelt thankfulness and gratitude to God by and on account of all who are saved from death.” Businesses were closed and the churches were opened for worship.
The existing bridge partially consists of the original bridge built before the civil war. Most people do not know that the massive stone piers that support the bridge, were built on a wooden platform on the river floor, supported by wooden pilings. In recent years, the piers have shifted and the movement can be seen when one looks down the tracks across the bridge. Union Pacific is in a race against time to replace the bridge before it once again fails. Trains slow to 25 miles per hour to cross.
Mostly, the society of today has forgotten this event in the time line of our state history. It is an event that we and our off spring should remember. The disaster speaks of the enthusiasm of earlier citizens to address the transportation needs of our state..... a determination that was not dampened by the Gasconade disaster.
Centennial History of Missouri by Walter B. Stevens
The Bulletin- July 1967, the Missouri Historical Society
Note: The author comments that he has located related pictures in a museum in Hermann Missouri.
Courtesy Bob AuBuchon. Reproduced by permission of the author. Links added.
About the author
Bob AuBuchon has a consulting business, providing digital photo services and flash animation based slide shows that can be used as stand alone programs or served across the internet, well suited for informational and/or historical programs.
Related article: "Engineering Success and Disaster: American Railroad Bridges 1840-1900" by Mark Aldrich, Railroad History #180.