Accident or hoodoo, mystery of train wreck persists

May 5, 1995


ANN ARBOR—Was it an accident or “13 hoodoo” that caused the Great Salem Train Wreck of 1907? Controversy over Michigan’s worst railroad accident to that date continues.

According to Donald Riddering’s “The Great Salem Train Wreck,” among the holdings in the University of Michigan’s Bentley Historical Library, word of the eastbound train’s route, stops, and times was passed along to the conductor, engineer, fireman and brakeman of a westbound work train via a hand-written memo. That memo and its interpretation by the crew of Train #71 are blamed by some for the accident. Written on unlined paper, the column with the names of the stations the excursion train would pass and the times for each passing in another column didn’t line up on the page.

The excursion train with its 800 passengers passed through Salem, on time. But #71, the work train supposed to stop on a siding giving the excursion train the right of way, apparently read the schedule wrong and met the excursion train head-on at 9:13 a.m.

Riddering quotes the Grand Rapids Herald of

Four of the passenger cars remained on the track. One coach was undamaged, two telescoped. One car was almost standing on end, and two were crosswise on the track, suspended next to a ten-foot gully in Wayne County known as the Van Sickle cut.

The dead numbered 33, the injured 101.

That evening the wreckage was burned, destroying, some said, any evidence or clues to what caused the carnage.

At the inquest, an Interstate Commerce Commission inspector said the hand-written order issued Train #71 “is positively the worst specimen of order writing I have ever seen in all the 33 years of my railroad experience. ”

The inquest also questioned the structural integrity of the passenger cars built of yellow pine and poplar. William L. Kellogg, a shop worker at Pere Marquette, thought the yellow pine was just as good as oak, but the prosecutor cited mail car regulations calling for steel plates that would prevent telescoping, thereby offering added protection to the mail and the employees who rode the mail cars.

Settlements to survivors and families of the dead and injured were not made public, but Riddering writes that some of the amounts were “generally known” and ranged from $150 to $800, with the largest recorded being $4,000 to a widow.

Was it a poorly written order that caused the wreck? Was there negligence by the crew of #71? Or was it “13 hoodoo” that caused one of the worst disasters in Michigan history?

Riddering says the “13 hoodoo” stems from the following: Pere Marquette has 13 letters; William Cotter, the company’s general manager, has 13 letters in his name as does the name of William D. Trump, the company’s general superintendent. The chief train dispatcher, Gilbert W. Groom, had 13 letters in his name as did Theodore Ensel, the division superintendent; William C. Hurst, the trainmaster of the division; and Nels Jorgensen, the roadmaster. Salem, Michigan, has 13 letters. Train order No. 3 listed 13 stations and 13 times for the excursion train.

Riddering’s account and newspaper reports of the Salem train wreck are in U-M’s Bentley Historical Library, open 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday.