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In 1939, sabotage killed dozens on the City of San Francisco. The killer was never found.

SF Gate logo SF Gate 11/25/2021 Katie Dowd

The City of San Francisco was 30 minutes late when it pulled out of Carlin, Nevada on the evening of Aug. 12, 1939.

The train was America’s most luxurious streamliner, launched the year before to transport guests between Chicago and Oakland. It cost $2 million to build and was lush with Kelly green seats and signage printed in metallic copper ink. The windows had been specially tinted by Polaroid to filter glare. Its top-of-the-line horse power cut 19 hours from the Midwest-to-West Coast trip.

Engineer Ed Hecox was keenly aware the train was behind schedule, but he knew the area well; he’d been transporting passengers through the West since he was a stagecoach driver in the 1880s. This long, empty stretch of Nevada would give him plenty of space to make up time. He pushed the City of San Francisco to 90 miles per hour.

Dinner service had just wrapped up in the restaurant car, and many passengers were enjoying post-meal drinks. They noticed the train was hitting turns hard since leaving of Carlin. Two beer bottles fell to the ground around one curve. On another, a woman was flung from her seat into the aisle. Everyone laughed.

At 9:33 p.m., speeding toward bridge #4 over the Humboldt River Gorge, Hecox saw a tumbleweed on the left rail of the track.

“That attracted my attention, as all weeds do,” he testified at a 1941 civil trial, “but when I struck the tumbleweed I felt a jar.”

Hecox braked, but it was too late: The City of San Francisco was derailing. The forward engines, propelled by momentum, slid off the rails but kept going across the bridge. Behind it, five cars decoupled. The Presidio (a 32-seat coffee shop/kitchen car), Mission Dolores (a 72-seat dining car), Embarcadero (a lounge car) and Twin Peaks and Chinatown (both sleepers) plunged through the wooden track ties into the riverbed below.

“My first thought was, 'I wonder how many are going to be killed,’” Hecox later recalled.

In the twisted wreckage were 24 dead and dying passengers and crew. Survivors crawled through the carnage, passing body parts torn apart by the impact. In the darkness, stewardess Thelma Ristvedt, face covered in blood from a head wound, helped passengers until she passed out.

It was too dark to see, so they began to set parts of the train on fire for light. Help was miles away.


As soon as the train ground to a halt, Hecox started running for the closest town. Between his train and that town was nothing — no telephones, no people. When he got to Harney, the alarm was finally raised. Volunteers from town followed Hecox back to the crash site; nearly all of the 170-plus people aboard were injured. One passenger, a doctor, triaged the wounded. It was a long night for them; the first rescue train wouldn’t arrive until the next morning.

With the rescue train came investigators from the Southern Pacific Railroad, local law enforcement and the FBI. They pored over the site which, unfortunately for agents, was unbelievably contaminated. Locals, of the helpful and looky-loo varieties, had walked over every inch of dirt. Some had taken away pieces of train and track as souvenirs. It was all hopelessly muddled.

Sabotage was quickly discovered, though. In the stretch leading up to the bridge, a 30-foot section of rail had been tampered with. Its spikes were pulled out so the rail could be forced inward. The tumbleweed Hecox saw had been tied onto the rail to hide the gap. Brown paint coated the area, another attempt to disguise the vandalism.

Dan O’Connell, the Southern Pacific’s chief special agent out of San Francisco, said the job would have taken 90 pounds of tools — carried from the highway over a mile away — and several hours. There was a four-hour window when no trains passed through during which to accomplish the deed.

One investigator reenacted the task for the Chronicle in 1939. Four heavy tools were necessary, they concluded. And whoever did it had to pull a 1,500-pound rail five inches from its position and spike it back down.

"If one man did it, he had a giant's strength," the Chronicle wrote. Many investigators agreed. This was the work of at least two determined, able-bodied men, perhaps with some knowledge of rail operations.

But instead of focusing on suspects with ties to the railroad, detectives went about rounding up the usual suspects: men made homeless by the Great Depression.

They first sought a “suspicious” figure reportedly seen near the crash site in the hours before. Witnesses swore he had no ears. So an APB went out, and Bob La Duceur was found a day later: The 35-year-old had just one ear. He also had half a foot which would have made the physical task of derailing a train nearly impossible. He proved he was 300 miles away the day of the accident and police released him.

Next, investigators were sent to every “hobo jungle” in California, Utah and Nevada. The Associated Press reported they were also rounding up any “transients” in the Harney area.

The strategy was likely driven in part by Southern Pacific president A.D. McDonald, who confidently told the media that one person of “diseased brain” wrecked his train.

"Lunatics do not have the capacity for sustained cooperation such as this labor required,” the Chronicle argued in an editorial. "Madmen they must have been, mad in the judgment of normal-minded men. Yet there is an elusive quality in this deed that shows something besides madness at work."

The key to the whole thing — a motive — is an enigma to this day. Terrorism, domestic or international, seems doubtful, as no group ever claimed responsibility for the act. More likely, it was the work of several men with a grudge against Southern Pacific or an individual on the train. There was some chatter at the time that it was actually a case of negligence, that the train had derailed due to its unsafe speed. But the FBI’s discovery of clearly vandalized rails and tools hidden into the Humboldt River seems to refute this.

In the end, over 93,000 people were interviewed by detectives. After the outbreak of World War II, the case was taken off active status. Other than a civil suit in the 1940s which yielded payouts for some injured passengers, the survivors of the City of San Francisco got no other justice for the crime.

F.S. Foote Jr., who suffered a broken jaw and sternum, punctured lung, internal hemorrhaging, a concussion, and cracked ribs, was awarded $7,500 — just enough to pay his hospital bills. Plus, he told newspapers, Southern Pacific gave him $5, which covered the additional fare he paid to upgrade to the City of San Francisco.

"While technically a refund of only the value of the unused portion of the ticket would be in order, we are refunding the full amount of the extra fare due to the interruption to our service,” said the letter that came with his $5 check. “Trust that we shall have the pleasure of serving you in the future."

The City of San Francisco has one more strange appearance in American history.

In 1995, SP Trainline, a magazine from the Southern Pacific Historical and Technical Society, published a story called "Tragedy at Harney” about the wreck of the streamliner.

A week later, Amtrak's Sunset Limited passenger train, traveling from Miami to Los Angeles, derailed in the Arizona desert. One crew member was killed.

The scene looked eerily similar: a westbound train traveling through the desert at night, deliberately sabotaged at the approach to a bridge, sending the train to the left into a riverbed.

The FBI paid a visit to the SP Trainline’s headquarters to question the author of “Tragedy at Harvey.” John R. Signor told the Washington Post they asked to see the magazine's subscriber list and questioned him for two hours, although not as a suspect.

“One agent did ask as he left,” Signor mused, “‘By the way, where were you Sunday night?’”

Whether or not someone was inspired by the City of San Francisco remains a mystery. The Sunset Limited sabotage, too, has never been solved.



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