“AWFUL WRECK HURLS TRAIN LOAD OF SHRINERS INTO ETERNITY”
The Morning Tribune described the train wreck in excruciating detail: “Mingled with these heart-rending cries came the noise of escaping steam from the engine and its shower of death brought forth the greatest horrors of the awful catastrophe… People who would have had some chance to escape or later to have recovered from their injuries were so scalded that death soon resulted… third degree burns resulting from escaping steam appear to have been the greatest single killer and crippler.”
Thirty-seven died. The May 12, 1907, “Shriner’s Wreck” southwest of Lompoc on what is now Vandenberg Air Force Base was the worst loss of life recorded on the Central Coast until Pacific Southwest Airlines Flight 1771 crashed near Cayucos, killing all 43 on board, in 1987.
Southern Pacific’s Coast Route had only been in operation for six years when the disaster occurred. The scenic connection between Los Angeles and San Francisco was attracting national interest, thanks to Charles Fletcher Lummis in his Land of Sunshine magazine and in Sunset, the in-house journal that he helped promote for Southern Pacific Railroad.
The Shriners International opened the Al Malaikah Temple in Los Angeles in 1906 and was the site of a national convention the following year.
The Shriner’s Convention was an immense success. After the convention, four sleeper cars with Shriners from New York and Pennsylvania headed north to visit Santa Barbara. The train then left Santa Barbara for San Francisco on the afternoon of May 11. Many were traveling with their wives.
About 70 miles northwest, between Point Argüello and Surf, the train was traveling at a modest 35 mph. Engineer Charles Champlain heard a loud metallic crack. The locomotive jumped the tracks, sailing 100 yards through the air before the cowcatcher caught the ground, flipping the engine on its side. Champlain was knocked unconscious and thrown from the cab, suffering a broken arm. The brakeman’s spine snapped, and the fireman was scalded when the boiler burst. Both men quickly died.
The ruptured steam pipes that ran through the train scalded the passengers in the diner. Only two of them survived. Fires broke out and hindered rescue efforts. Many passengers died in two sleepers.
Because San Luis Obispo was the closest city of any size, physicians and hospital sanitariums here took on the monumental job of treating the injured.
A Mr. Johns, the train’s conductor, telegraphed news of the wreck into SLO by shinnying up a telegraph pole and employing a special “telegraphone” to tap his signal up the line.
Drs. Paul Jackson, J. Knowlton, William M. Stover and C. J. McGovern were on the relief train that reached the wreck within two hours.
The bodies of those found dead at the scene were removed by a train that came from Santa Barbara.
The San Luis Obispo train took the injured to the quickly overcrowded San Luis and Hageman sanitariums on Marsh.
Dr. Stover recalled his experiences on the ride back to San Luis Obispo: “The moans and cries of the injured and dying filled the car. Four of those on board died en route. … During their last moments [they] were calling for loved ones far away.
“With the nurses we were kept busy trying to alleviate as much as possible the intense suffering.”
Survivors had only praise for our community and the medical care they received here. Their greatest anxieties were over not wanting to be transferred to the Southern Pacific Railroad’s hospital in San Francisco.
Dan Krieger is professor of history, emeritus, at Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo. He is past president of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at email@example.com.