Dave Sprau's recollections of the Ft. Belknap collision

The trains involved were the westbound and eastbound "Fast Mail," Nos 27 and 28. Normally these trains met around Coburg, which was 24 miles east of Ft Belknap, but on this day the eastbound train was about half an hour late.

My information on the Ft. Belknap collision came from three sources in 1973 when I was working as a train dispatcher at Havre, MT:

Charles W. Kegel, Afternoon Assistant Chief Dispatcher.

Mack L. Glover, locomotive Engineer and Local Chairmen for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers Lodge 392.

Dave Sprau was a telegrapher and train dispatcher on NP and GN Tacoma and Seattle, beginning in 1960, BN train dispatcher Havre, Vancouver, Seattle 1970-1995, retiring as a shortline superintendent in Tacoma in 1998.

Howard L. Tibbetts, train dispatcher.

All told essentially the same story, but some were able to furnish information the others did not have.

The actual cause of the Ft Belknap wreck was an overzealous Traveling Engineer, whose reputation among crews was, reputedly, "less than complimentary;" perhaps morseo than usual because many perceived his attitude toward them as somewhat antagonistic. On the night of the accident he was aboard eastbound mail train 28 and was running the diesel engine. This is rather odd because his ostensible purpose for accompanying the crew was for the purpose of instructing and qualifying the train engineer on diesel locomotives as well as the passenger assignment, because the engineer was relatively new to both.

When No.28 with extinguished headlight (as required by rules when a train is clear of the main track) stopped at the east end of the siding at Ft. Belknap, and commenced waiting for Fast Mail No. 27, the Traveling Engineer, eager to show off his superior knowledge, blustered to the engineer and fireman, "You come back into the engine room with me, I want to show you something." Posterity does not record what the lesson was; but the three returned to the cab of the diesel and were horrified to find that, unnoticed by them while in the engine room, the entire train had silently "drifted," at maybe two or three miles per hour, out past the east siding switch. The know-it-all Traveling Engineer had failed to set the Independent Brake on the locomotive!

At approximately this same time, the headlight of No.27 could be seen down the track perhaps less than one mile away. No.27 had managed to get by the clear approach block signal to Ft Belknap before No.28 fouled the east siding switch and was now bearing down at track speed on No.28. The Traveling engineer panicked, reversed the locomotive and tried to back into the clear. In a vain attempt to give a warning to No.27, he turned the headlight back "on." Of course a quick back-up move was foolish because the east siding switch at Ft Belknap was a spring switch; even if it had been a conventional switch, the result probably would have been the same - part of No. 28's cars promptly derailed. Everyone aboard No. 28's engine jumped off at that point. The engine crew on No. 27 was not as lucky. By the time they realized their predicament and "dumped the air" their speed had reduced by only a few miles per hour and the train was going too fast to jump; instead, they were killed.

The dispatcher on duty at Havre was Fredrick J. Frahm. Fred was well-experienced and very competent; shortly after the meet should have taken place, he rang the operator at Chinook to inquire whether No. 27 was "in the block" out of Zurich. Receiving a negative reply, he rang the operator at Harlem to inquire if No.28 was showing up. The operator's response gave a chilling portention: "No, dispatcher, nothing in the block - and a few minutes ago I was outside and heard an awful racket to the west, it sounded like a crash." At about the same time, a private citizen living near the wreck site telephoned one of the depots to report the collision; this information was duly passed along to dispatcher Frahm who immediately told the night chief dispatcher and asked that some ambulances and doctors be called.

Frahm next did the natural thing that any competent train dispatcher does in such situations; in an effort to find out what had caused the accident, he began checking his train order book to make sure the orders had been correct, and asked the operators at Chinook and Malta to compare his records with theirs. He was in the middle of asking these operators, "What does your copy of Order No 9 say? What does your clearance say?" when an angry voice broke in on the telephone:

"This is John Budd. This is a very bad accident here, and we have people hurt. We need doctors and ambulances right away. Now, you stop worrying about what the orders say; there will be plenty of time to look into that, you get busy and get us some help here." Obviously this is not an exact quote but as told to the writer, it pretty well covers the purport of the conversation. Budd was angry, thinking the dispatcher was more worried about his train orders than about getting help. In actuality Frahm had alread done his duties properly and Budd needed have no concern.

President Budd had been aboard his private car on the rear of No. 28. As it turned out, the dispatcher was entirely blameless, but it was said among railroad circles for many years afterward, had it not been for the Ft. Belknap wreck and the undeserved jaded opinion Budd formed about Fred Frahm, the latter would certainly have been promoted to higher position with the railroad because he was a very capable, competent and respected train dispatcher. Frahm retired as a train dispatcher in Seattle in 1979 and died shortly afterward.

Train dispatcher Howard Tibbetts offered confirmation of the facts stated herein; "I was working third trick at Brockton when this happened. The Traveling Engineer caused it, told the crew to come back in the units while they were in the siding waiting for 27 and he did not set the air; train rolled out thru rubber switch. Then he got excited and reversed it!! Result: On the ground. The fireman on 27 was a friend of mine and wanted me to make a round trip to Williston with them on the day prior, but the chief dispatcher sent me to Brockton to work for a few days. Scared hell out of me when I was on the message phone talking to another operator, and someone from Harlem came on the phone to report the wreck."

The writer did not see the ICC accident report until many years after hearing the above version from his three sources. No explanation can be offered for the variance between this version and that of the ICC, except to say that obviously a few salient facts are missing from the latter. Perhaps the outcome of the railroad's accident investigation explains it best; the engineer and fireman on No. 28 were eventually exonerated, but the Travelling Engineer's career was over; he was dismissed.

— Dave Sprau, March 2011

 

« BACK to the Ft. Belknap page