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Fatal Train Derailment


Twenty-four people were injured and one man died in a train derailment on this date in 1887 near Sterling, in Dakota Territory. The passenger train was westbound on the Northern Pacific line. Its passengers included two companies of soldiers. The train was four miles east of Sterling, going down a grade at 25 to 30 miles per hour when the baggage car and three coaches derailed and rolled down an embankment. Officials blamed the wreck on a “sun-kink” in the tracks, due to intense heat warping the rails.

On the train was William Breed, who was headed to Washington Territory from Minnesota with his parents and siblings. When the train accident happened, he jumped from the rear platform of one of the cars, but was crushed as a car rolled over him. He was 21 years old. 

One passenger recounted a couple with four little children who sat opposite him in a car. The children flew about “in the air like rubber balls” he reported, but they weren’t seriously injured. Physicians came from Bismarck, Jamestown and Steele to assist. The dining car provided meals while the train was delayed at the wreck site. Some of the soldiers imbibed “hospital liquor” and began to sing.

Most of the injured had slight wounds. Among the seriously injured was a woman who sustained a scalp wound, a badly bruised hand and bruises all over her body. An assistant superintendent of the Northern Pacific telegraphy suffered broken legs from large trunks and boxes in the baggage car falling on him. Another man suffered a fractured skull and broken arm. People were amazed only one person died. 

The tracks were repaired the day of the crash, and the undamaged cars were able to proceed after a delay of eight hours, and the next day’s trains ran on time. The crushed cars lay in “a shapeless heap” beside the tracks and presented “a most interesting scene,” according to a Bismarck newspaper. 

The derailment was called the most disastrous on the Northern Pacific in months. Railroad deaths weren’t uncommon in those days. People died in train collisions, falling from trains, or by being struck while walking or even sleeping on the tracks.

Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura


Jamestown Weekly Alert. 1887, March 17. Page 4

Jamestown Weekly Alert. 1887, May 5. Page 7

Bismarck Weekly Tribune. 1887, May 6. Pages 6, 8

The Hope Pioneer. 1887, May 6. Page 3

The Dickinson Press. 1887, May 7. Page 3

Territory of Dakota. (1887). Third annual report of the railroad commissioners of the territory of Dakota for the year ending June 30, 1887. Tribune Printers and Binders: Bismarck

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