When trains collide

November 20, 2020 1:00 AM

(in part from the Spokesman-Review July 31,1909)

The 1909 Homestead Act opened up a large area of land south of Coeur d’Alene whereby citizens could enter their names in a lottery for a chance to homestead a large parcel of land. For 22 days, July 25 to Aug. 5, 1909, notarized and sealed application forms were to be delivered to the federal land office in Coeur d’Alene for a chance to win one of 4,160 parcels available. A frenzy of 286,848 applications resulted.

To reach Coeur d’Alene, most applicants would travel via the Spokane and Inland Empire Railroad that had built a single-track electric railroad line in 1906 linking Spokane to Coeur d’Alene. Each train had three or more cars linked together, with a capacity of 50-60 passengers per car. During the 22-day registration period the crowds wishing to get to Coeur d’Alene were so large that the line decided to run trains to and from Spokane every 15 to 20 minutes with no restrictions on how many passengers could board the cars. The busiest day recorded 14,000 tickets being sold.

On Saturday, July 31 at 4:35 p.m., train cars packed full of eager passengers wanting free land met with disaster.

Court records show that the motormen for train No. 20 and train No. 5 spotted each other coming toward a collision while at 800 feet apart. Train No. 20 was able to came to a complete stop but train No. 5 was moving at 20 miles per hour when they collided near the area which is now part of the Riverstone shopping area. Seeing the impending disaster, many passengers jumped from the cars. The impact killed 12 passengers immediately. More than 100 were injured with four dying later in local hospitals.

The legal fallout was extensive. The motorman for train No. 5 sued the train company for damages and was awarded $7,500. The jury ruled that the policies of the Spokane and Inland Empire Railroad Co. were to blame. The appeals went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, upholding the lower court’s rulings.

The company was able to last for another 10 years, but went into receivership in January 1919 due to the costs of legal defenses and settlements.

This year Santa will be at the Fort Sherman Chapel on Dec. 5, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. The Museum of North Idaho invites children and parents to visit Santa in this festive setting. Live music with appropriate social distancing will be observed. More information can be found on the Museum of North Idaho website.

– Richard Sheldon

Edited by Deborah Mitchell and Jocelyn Babcock