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Empire Builder Train Wreck


The worst rail disaster in North Dakota history happened at 7:20 p.m. on this date in 1945 at Michigan, about 50 miles west of Grand Forks. The first section of a Great Northern passenger train had to make an emergency stop, and the engine of section-two plowed into it from behind.

The two Empire Builders were traveling to the West Coast as a pair. The first section contained the Pullman sleeper cars, with 237 aboard, and the second section carried between 600 and 700 in coach cars. A new crew came on at Fargo that afternoon, with section-one leaving at 3:25 and section two pulling out about 10 minutes later. Passengers were almost all military men and women – World War II was winding down and would, in fact, officially end within the week.

The only eyewitness that evening was Annette Desautels, who had just gotten off work at the Red Owl. “...when I got to the Great Northern tracks,” she said, “I...wondered why the train had stopped there, since the Empire Builder never makes a stop at Michigan... I could hear the shrill whistle of a second train coming...then I saw a railroad man with a red flag drop off the rear platform... run back down the track a ways, then frantically attempt to flag the oncoming train.”

There was no time for the second train to stop. The second engine plunged into the rear car of section-one, sending it skyward and splitting it down the middle. The fated Pullman, named Peoria, was a “bobtail” – part observation car and part sleeping berths. One serviceman saw the second train coming and jumped out a window. The remaining 34 were either killed instantly or overcome by steam escaping from the engine below. Roughly two-thirds were military; the rest were primarily women, with several small children. Only one person was found alive. Mrs. George Bannan, 45, was trapped at the waist with her head caught outside a window. Sadly, she was on her way to Velva to attend her father’s funeral.

Within minutes, the people of Michigan (population 500) began rescue efforts. Three welders, one from Tolna and two from Michigan, went for their equipment, ladders were brought, and the job of cutting through the steel and rubble began. As dark came on, people lined up their cars and aimed their headlights on the train until alternative lighting could be rigged. People provided coffee and food, and others provided space and typewriters to reporters.

Military personnel on board did a great deal to help the train crew and rescue workers, as well as caring for the injured. Over the ensuing hours and days, one sailor helped the local telegraph company send messages to Fargo, St. Paul and to hundreds of relatives around the nation.

A 20 year-old black porter from St. Paul was named several times for his heroic attempts to save Mrs. Bannon. He was supporting her head while a priest performed last rites. After more than six hours, she was finally freed, but she died in the ambulance 15 minutes later.

The first engine had developed a “hot box” – a wheel bearing that was burning out. With smoke billowing from the tender, there was no choice; the train had to be stopped. In fact, it stopped three times – twice in and near Petersburg, where signals were left to warn the second train. The following engineer slowed for a number of miles but then resumed to 55. When he came upon the stalled train in Michigan, the engineer hit the emergency brakes and turned off all power, but he was only able to slow to 30 MPH before impact. Amazingly, the crew survived.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm