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Wreck results in a mass grave at Nyack

| October 13, 2021 8:50 AM

Editor’s note: The following story was taken from John Fraley’s book, “Rangers, Trappers and Trailblazers.” This is part two of the horrific story of a runaway train wreck in 1901.

By JOHN FRALEY

For the Hungry Horse News

An estimated 25 minutes after the Great Northern freighter ran away and rolled out of the Essex station, it had traveled the 16 miles of track to Nyack and caught the passenger train. With a “frightful grinding and crushing noise” the rocketing freight cars plowed into the rear of the passenger train, at the point right between the track switches.

The two rear cars, the private car of Downs and the laborer car, were “crushed like eggshells.” One of the freight cars tumbled over the smashed cars of Downs and the laborers and crashed into the passenger train sleeper car.

The crash instantly pulverized and killed Superintendent Downs, his son, and his cook. Most of the laborers were also killed on impact. The passenger cars rocked wildly and finally came to a stop.

Upon impact, some of the freight cars tumbled across the space between the main track and the siding where the other freighter was sitting (this was the train that had pulled off to the siding earlier to let the passenger train pass). The conductor and the brakeman, standing on the platform of the parked freight train’s caboose, were thrown in the air for 50 feet as some of the wrecked freight cars crossed over the space between the main track and the siding and crashed into their train. Miraculously, the men were not seriously injured.

As horrible as the collision was, the disaster got even worse. The first eight cars of the runaway freight train carried large loads of dry cedar shingles. The cars were shattered and the shingle bundles burst open. Along with shattered pieces of wreckage, the shingles piled up on top of the dead, and those who were injured.

Almost instantly, an intense fire broke out and swept through the masses of shingles, making rescue efforts nearly hopeless.

As night fell, many uninjured trainmen and passengers joined in on the almost impossible rescue task. All told, five dead and 13 injured who were not consumed by flames were removed from the wreckage. The bodies of all others were crushed, dismembered, and “burned to ashes in the intense heat caused by the burning of the dry cedar shingles, which were piled many feet deep over them.”

Soon after the crash, the conductor of the passenger train had the engine uncoupled and steamed west 11 miles to Belton to telegraph officials of the disaster and to call for help. A special train was organized in Kalispell and all available surgeons were contacted to help out. These men, assembled at short notice, included: Dr. Houston, the company’s surgeon, Dr. Lamb, and Dr. Campbell. The General Surgeon of the Grand Trunk of Canada and his assistant also joined the train. The train headed east towards the wreck. It covered the 40 miles quickly and arrived at Nyack by about 1:30-2 a.m.

By the time the doctor special from Kalispell arrived at the Nyack crash site, the injured who survived had been placed in the tourist sleeper. The doctors attended to the badly injured men under gruesome conditions as best they could. Workers then prepared the 13 suffering men for the train ride to Kalispell. The train arrived in Kalispell carrying its “gruesome load of dead and bleeding humanity.” The train was stopped at the crossing opposite the hospital, where men with stretchers rushed the injured inside.

The terrible ordeal these men had obviously gone through shocked the hospital workers. The men had blackened faces and heads, scorched skin, great burn blisters, and many broken bones. The remains of five men were sent to the morgue. Because of the inferno, these turned out to be the only recoverable remains from the disaster.

At the morgue in Kalispell, witnesses identified the remains of Superintendent Downs’ badly mangled by his leg and shoe. No trace of his son was ever found, but Down’s cook was intact enough to be identified.

The wrecker was sent up the tracks from Kalispell not far behind the departure of the doctors’ special train. The wrecker worked through the next day and beyond, cleaning up the area and pushing the wreckage aside to re-open the tracks for travel.

The unidentifiable remains of more than 30 of laborers, Down’s son, and any others had been “cremated” by the inferno at the crash site. The ashes, “blackened bones, scorched pieces of flesh” and anything else that might be human remains were piled and pushed into a mass grave near the crash site, just west of the siding, on land later owned by the pioneering Robertson family. The Robertsons homesteaded the land at Nyack about a decade after the wreck. Betty Robertson Schurr grew up there.

A list of these souls, most of which reportedly were “shipped” from Duluth, Minnesota, was not available. Maybe that’s why some of these forgotten souls may not be at peace.

“Yeah, there are ghosts in my house,” says Cork Hill, who married into the Robertson family and who owns the land where the “burial” took place well over a century ago. As a matter of fact, the mass grave is 30 feet from his door, right in the front yard. Just like Grandma Robertson before him, Cork is probably sleeping on top of part of the old pit where the remains were shoved and then covered up.

Cork is one of the few residents of the little Nyack Siding, tucked right against the Middle Fork of the Flathead River. Pieces of the old wooden pipe that carried stream flow from a little creek to the water tower can still be seen.

The mass grave sits right at the corner of the pipe’s delivery point to the water tower, which is long gone. Maybe some of the laborers killed in the awful wreck helped build some of the water system for Nyack. If not these men, others like them surely did. Local lore from Grandma Robertson contended that the water system was built by the Chinese workers.

“It’s like a presence,” says Cork. “I’ve lived here over 30 years and I’m not the only one who’s experienced it. Others have.

“I look at it and think, ‘There’s got to be something down there. Bones, watches coins, possessions. There’s the remains of a lot of people just scooped into a mass grave. Probably not buried very deep.”

In 1901, the railroad hadn’t been completed for long. The company didn’t have any answers for this kind of catastrophe.

On the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 3 1901, a coroner’s jury held an inquest beginning at 10 a.m. at the coroner’s office in Kalispell. The jury members included: Lee Kerr, Robert Pauline, Fred Russell, Harry Williams, Cha. Goodrich, and Jay Rakestraw. Coroner Nelson Willoughby had spent several days investigating the crash site and assembling witnesses, including the Great Northern trainmen who were operating the trains, and some of the passengers on No. 3. After a day of testimony of nine major witnesses, and hours of deliberations, the jury delivered their verdict. Focusing on the five-identifiable dead, the verdict read:

“We the jury…find as follows:

“That they came to their death by a railway accident caused by 28 loaded cars passing out of a switch at Essex Station, Montana, and running down a grade and striking the rear end of a passenger train, at or near Nyack Station…and we find that said train escaped from said station through no fault of the crew in charge…or any employee of the Great Northern railroad company. That the said train escaped, according to the evidence, through some unknown cause.”

The jury exonerated the Company and everyone involved in the tragedy, and Great Northern put the disaster behind them.

So, the little siding of Nyack rests peaceably along the modern track that still hugs the Middle Fork of the Flathead River. Passenger and freight trains roll by every day. No signs of the gruesome and horrific crash and aftermath can be seen, except for a commemorative plaque installed on private land in 2018 with the help of Cork Hill.

But if you are riding on the train past the Nyack siding, maybe if you listen, you could hear unfulfilled sounds of unrest from the dozens of dead souls buried in a shallow mass grave on the edge of the railroad right-of-way only about 50 yards from the track. You could look over and see the spot, and wonder.

Fraley’s book is available at Farcountrypress.com