Times Past

Dan Krieger: Train wreck victims received care in SLO

‘Frightful Wreck on the Coast Line — Three Cars in Splinters — the List of the Dead Now Numbers Twenty and Will Probably Reach Thirty. While Many Were Injured — Escaping Steam Carried Death with It — Injured Brought to This City.”

The headlines of the Morning Tribune for Sunday, May 12, 1907, shocked this railroad town, where news of wrecks was common.

Honda, the site of the derailment, was along a windswept stretch of barren sand dunes 65 miles north of Santa Barbara between Point Conception and the mouth of the Santa Ynez River at Surf. The accident happened in clear weather.

This was the worst disaster in the history of the Central Coast before more recent aircraft crashes. The death toll reached 36.

Newspapers reported that the accident’s survivors had only praise for San Luis Obispo 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.

Railroad operations, like mining, have been risky occupations throughout history.

The 450-bed Southern Pacific Hospital, at Fell and Baker streets in San Francisco, was built by the Southern Pacific Railroad and used as the major medical center for its seriously ill or injured employees from all over the West.

The elegant building is a landmark in Golden Gate Park’s “Panhandle” district. Sold by the railroad in 1968, it now serves as Mercy Terrace Senior Housing Center.

The hospital was being built in 1907, replacing the burnt and dynamited shell of the Southern Pacific Company Hospital on the southwest corner of Fourteenth and Mission streets.

Railroad-owned hospitals were first created by the Central Pacific Railroad as it began constructing the transcontinental railroad east from Sacramento in 1863. Separate facilities were used for Chinese and non-Chinese patients. We know the names of the surgeons who practiced in these facilities, but little else. Historians have every reason to believe that they were little different from the hospitals treating the wounded during the Civil War. Amputations were frequent and death from infection was common.

This began to change in 1882, when Dr. Thomas W. Huntington, a graduate of the University of Vermont and Harvard Medical College, arrived at the Sacramento hospital. Dr. Huntington was a convert to Dr. Joseph Lister’s principles of “antiseptic surgery.” Prior to Lister, most surgeries were pestilential.

Huntington first had to convert the staff of his own institution and then that of the San Francisco clinic in the late 1890s. In 1897, he was elected head of the surgical section of the State Medical Society. We have every reason to believe that the surgical wards of the SP facilities were among the best in the American West.

Why, then, did the victims of the “Shriner’s Special” disaster at Honda, so named because the special train was carrying members of the Ancient Arabic Order, Nobles of the Mystic Shrine from their convention, have such an aversion to treatment at the railroad’s hospital?

Perhaps it was because with railroads, even with good medical treatment, there were relatively few inconsequential injuries. The Southern Pacific hospitals might prevent infection, but there were numerous amputations easily observed in most towns through which railroads ran.

Or perhaps it was the fact that four physicians from San Luis Obispo were on the relief train that reached the wreck site within two hours. Drs. Paul Jackson, J. Knowlton, William M. Stover and C. J. McGovern apparently rendered competent and compassionate care. Thereafter, victims wanted those same physicians to see them through recovery.