PHOTOS: 1923 Cole Creek Train Wreck in Wyoming
It was an unexpectedly rainy week in September, with three straight days of downpour in the Casper area. Cole Creek, however, was reported to have less than 16 inches of rainwater in its bed and by 8 p.m., the bridge was believed secure. Hours later, the water level would reportedly rise two feet in half an hour.
On September 27, 1923, The Chicago Burlington & Quincy No. 30 passenger train left Casper for Denver at approximately 8:30 p.m. with a disputed number of 60-70 passengers. The train arrived at Cole Creek by 9:15 p.m. and approached the Cole Creek bridge shortly after. Unexpectedly, No. 30 attempted to slow, and eventually braked upon realizing the usually dry gully below was now a torrent of rushing water and vision was severely limited. But the bridge’s trestle had already been washed out and direly weakened - a realization which came far too late for the train’s crews.
It was a nightmarish, unstoppable scene: the 100-ton locomotive engine and first five (of seven total) train cars plummeted into the sand and water below. Two of the cars held the greatest number of passengers on the train. Metal crunched in the pile up, windows and doors burst under flood of water, steam from the engine scalded passengers and worse, and there would be no chance of help for more than an hour.
The first call to the Casper dispatcher’s office came 45 minutes after the disaster. Emergency news alerts calling for doctors and volunteers flashed across movie screens in town, initially causing uproar as civilians believed it to be a refinery disaster - far more likely than the greatest train wreck in Wyoming’s history, as it would come to be.
Despite all determined efforts, rescue crews could do very little until the following morning. Bodies were initially found washed down the North Platte River for hundreds of yards, and eventually would reach miles down the river. Recovery efforts continued for weeks, with cleanup ending October 15, and daily reports were provided by local newspapers and radio.
The train’s conductor, Guy Goff, was found seven months later, in May 1924, washed down the North Platte. The body of the engineer, Ed Spangler, was discovered in January the year following. The cost of the wreck totaled close to a million dollars and 31 deaths are reported, although the final number remains uncertain. The day after the nightmare, a nine-year-old boy was seen to spend days searching for his father amidst the wrecks. There is no confirmation he was ever found.
Dave Johnson, of the Johnson Power Plant in Glenrock, WY, spent days taking photos of the disaster. See them below.