Wreckage with train coming off raised wooden railroad tracks

Wreck of the Smilax, 1923. (Kelley House Collection, Kelley House Photographs)

April 18, 1923 – A fatal train wreck occurred on the Caspar Railroad when the Caspar Lumber Company engine “Smilax” derailed after hitting two horses on the Digger Creek trestle. The engine was bringing in twelve loaded cars of logs, when the crew spotted the two horses on the tracks about 9 pm. The approach to the trestle was slightly down grade, and it was impossible to stop the train.

Following the impact, the locomotive left the rails. The Beacon reported, “The train checked in its sudden course, the lead log a big six-foot butt on the first car, broke its shackles like twine and caromed ahead toward the side of the locomotive and the locomotive, followed by ten of the twelve loaded cars, with their loads of logs piled up in the creek bottom below the trestle.”

The train crew, Engineer Nat Copeland, Fireman Brewer, and Brakemen Jim Stillwell and Mervin Gamble, were all in the cab when the train approached the trestle. Copeland warned his companions to jump, but did not do so himself. He was fatally injured in the crash, and died before he could be extricated from the wreckage. “The other three miraculously escaped death, just how, they do not know, for logs were thrown and rolled about them in all directions. Brewer was quite badly cut about one hip; Stillwell’s leg was badly lacerated, and Gamble had one ear nearly torn off.” They were taken to the Fort Bragg hospital for treatment.

A nearby rancher sent word to Caspar, and a hundred men aided in the rescue effort. Copeland “had been running an engine for a long time and was considered a very capable engineer. He had long been a resident of Caspar and was well-known and liked. He is survived by a wife and six children.”

Early Mendocino Coast by Katy Tahja – From the Sonoma County line to the Humboldt County line a century ago. A tribute to the creativity and perseverance of the common working man. Images of America series. $22.