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S-Bridge Trainwreck

Digital Memories

Winter storms in the mountains of Northern Idaho often bring transportation to a standstill. The railroads first attacked the problem with human power. Labor gangs, Japanese in one case, would be sent out with shovels to clear the ravines of snowdrifts that could reach thirty or more feet deep. Later, the rotary snowplow applied steam-power to the problem.

Mullan (Idaho), "S" bridge wreck, 1903 [01]
Mullan (Idaho), "S" bridge wreck, 1903 [01]

On February 10, 1903, between Saltese, Montana, and Wallace, Idaho, one Northern Pacific rotary met the full onslaught of the winter snows. A breakdown had trapped them in the deep snow and the crew worked by hand to dig out the train. Inching their way along the tracks in the middle of the night, they halted the train at the “S” Bridge, an 839 foot sinuous trestle, that offered them respite while the snow accumulated in the gulch. A pusher engine and a caboose were left in the open while the remainder rested on solid ground. At seven in the morning a massive snowslide raced down the gulch and ripped out a portion of the bridge. The rear engine and the caboose plunged into the gorge, burying the engine in the deep snow while the caboose and its seven sleeping occupants lay shattered on top. A passenger car, with eight aboard, hung off the end of the broken trestle, dangling from the coupler. Although no-one was killed, it took doctors eleven hours to get the shocked and dazed survivors to the hospital at Wallace.

Before the wreckage was cleared, Wallace’s Barnard Studio sent out a photographer to capture the scene of the tragedy. The photographer’s shadow, just barely visible in the snow at the left foreground, indicates the position standing next to the large-format wooden camera covered with the photographer’s focusing cloth. Eight 8x10 inch glass plate negatives of the wreckage have survived and are in the University of Idaho’s Barnard-Stockbridge Collection.

The remaining question is who took the photographs? T. N. Barnard, founder of the studio, had by 1903 turned most, if not all, of the operational details of the studio over to his assistant of several years, Nellie Stockbridge. Miss Stockbridge, then thirty-five, was according to one observer “slim, small and bespectacled.” Yet she became known as a fearless adventurer seeking commercial photographs high in the mountains and deep in the mines. Still active into her nineties, Nellie Stockbridge documented the history of the Silver Valley for decades. A legacy that is preserved in the University of Idaho Library’s Historical Photograph Collection.

Written in January 1995 for the library’s Digital Memories website.

Caption: S-Bridge train wreck, above Mullan, Idaho, 1903. Barnard-Stockbridge Collection, University of Idaho Library, 8-X253.

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