On Memorial Day, May 30, 1890 a terrible railroad train accident occurred on the Webster Street Bridge which led to the death of 13 passengers. The train, carrying people from the ferry from San Francisco towards Oakland hurtled through the open Webster Street draw and plunged into San Antonio Creek (i.e., the estuary).
At the time a strong current ran in San Antonio Creek and the spot where the accident occurred was approximately 300' wide and 20' deep. The passenger trains crossed the Webster Street Bridge on 30 minute intervals throughout the day. When the bridge was opened for passing boats it was the responsibility of the bridge keeper to signal approaching trains by hoisting a red flag.
The bridge was swung open to allow the yacht Juanita to pass, when the train appeared, headed for the bridge. Although the bridge keeper attempted to close the bridge, there was not enough time before the train engine along with the tender and the first passenger car plunged into the water. Train engineer Sam Dunn tried to reverse the train, but the speed of the train, along with the short distance, made his attempts futile. The first car was filled with passengers and at the time the creek was quite deep. During the fall the coupling broke between the first and next two cars due to the weight of the engine and first car, leaving the second and third car on tracks. The second car continued its forward momentum across the bridge, and then stopped so abruptly that the front broke open, throwing many more passengers off the bridge into the water.
Some of the passengers from the first car were able to escape the wreckage and were rescued by local yachts and other small boats. Train employees and uninjured passengers began rescuing those in the water. The injured were taken to the local receiving hospital, and the dead to the morgue. Later the submerged car was pulled from the water by the Oakland wrecking train while boats dragged the water for victims.
As news of the accident spread throughout Oakland thousands of people rushed to the accident site, as well as to the morgue to identify the deceased, with Coroner Evers in charge. It was believed there was 48 passengers on the first car, with 19 survivors, leading the authorities to conclude there had been 29 killed in the crash. Later it was found that 13 people had died.
Firsthand accounts related what transpired. F. F. Finley, San Francisco, one of the survivors from the car which plunged into the creek recalled the following: "We left the city on the 1:25 train for Alameda on the narrow-gauge. I was seated on the front seat of the first car, facing the engine. All went well until just as we approached the drawbridge crossing the San Antonio creek. As we drew near to the bridge it seemed to me the draw was open and that a fearful accident was inevitable. Just then a man jumped from the engine into the water, and then came a crash. A horrible crushing of timber and snapping of heavy iron work followed, and at once consternation prevailed in the car. The next thing I knew I found myself blindly groping for the door, which I fortunately found and opened. When I found myself on the platform I gradually worked my way by climbing and holding on to the front of the car to the roof, which I had just reached when that end of the car rose out of the water, and quite a number of people escaped in this manner, principally women and children. The car was about two thirds full when we left the wharf, and I should judge there were at least fifty people in it. There was a fearful outcry when the car began to fill, but then was almost immediately hushed in one long final wail of despair." 1
The bridge tender, James Dunlap, gave the following account of the accident: "I was in charge at the time and had just opened the draw to allow the yacht Juanita to pass through. I was in the act of moving the draw back into place when the uptrain from San Francisco came along. That is all I know about it." 1He also said the danger flag was properly set in the center of the track when the bridge was opened for the yacht Juanita to pass. When it was pointed out to him that it was rather unusual to open the draw just at the hour when the train was due, he refused to answer any further questions.
Some in the crowd gathered at the accident scene blamed the train engineer Sam Dunn and the Fireman O'Brien, threatening to throw them into the bay. Although both had gone down in the engine they managed to escape without injury. Following the crash Dunn and O'Brien were seen on the wharf, but disappeared when threatened with violence by the angry crowd.
Below is a list of those who died: 2
- Martin Kelly, Oakland - Assistant Chief Wharfinger for the State; had served in the state senate (aged 48)
- Henry S. Austin of Austin & Phelps, San Francisco (aged about 60)
- Miss Florence Austin - San Francisco, one of Austin's daughters; her sister Mary survived (aged 18)
- Mrs. Mary Jane O'Connor - widow of deceased Bryan O'Connor of the firm of O'Connor, Moffatt & Co., San Francisco. (aged 52)
- James R. Irwin, Oakland - sewing machine agent for Singer Sewing Machine Agency at 13th and Washington. James, Annie and their son lived at 960 - 22nd Street.
- E. R. Robinson, Oakland. Sold insurance in San Francisco and lived in East Oakland
- Luigi Malatesta, San Francisco (aged about 50)
- Artelio (Attilio?) Malatesta, San Francisco, Luigi's son (aged 19)
- Capt. John Dwyer, Sacramento (aged about 45)
- Matthias S. Williams, San Francisco - was carrying almost $750 in cash, gold and silver
- H. W. Auld, Honolulu - Native of Hawai'i, customs house clerk in Honolulu. Was coming to Oakland to escort his sisters home from the Sacred Heart Convent (later Holy Names College)
- Miss Nellie (Ellen Josephine) Kearns, San Francisco (aged 20)
- Miss Katie (Catherine Anna) Kearns, San Francisco (aged 13) - The Kearns were going to Oakland to visit their sister at the convent
At least five of the victims were on their way to the Dietz Opera House for the commencement ceremony of St. Joseph's Preparatory School. Capt. Dwyer was going to see his son graduate, and Martin Kelly was traveling with him. 2
Engineer Samuel Dunn disappeared before the inquest. After testimony from numerous witnesses including the fireman, a coroner's jury found Dunn guilty of manslaughter: "We find said S. Dunn guilty of manslaughter. We also find that the railway company does not take sufficient precaution to signal trains when approaching aforesaid drawbridge." The verdict was unanimous. 3
Numerous lawsuits were filed against the Southern Pacific, totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars. One lawsuit for $11,000 resulted in a payment of $1,000; 4 another, by John Hackett, was filed for $25,000 but the jury awarded him $3,500. 5 Mrs. Annie Irwin's suit for $100,000 resulted in an award of $6,000. 6
Other passengers on the train included:
- Captain John Hackett Oakland - city council
Note regarding the bridge: Although the word "drawbridge" brings to mind a bridge that is lifted to allow vessels to pass (e.g., the Park Street Bridge), the Webster Street Bridge was in fact a swing bridge. That is, it rotated on center until the span was parallel to the waterway.
Note regarding the location. Different accounts in the newspapers refer to the waterway as San Antonio Creek, Alameda Creek, Oakland Creek, etc. It refers to the estuary, which is part of historical San Antonio Creek.
Links and References
- Dashed Down to Death Davenport Morning Tribune June 1, 1890
- Oakland Train Dashes Through an Open Drawbridge Daily Alta California May 31, 1890
- The Verdict Daily Alta California June 3, 1890
- Compromised for One-Eleventh San Francisco Call July 30, 1890
- Oakland Daily Alta California February 11, 1891
- Oakland Daily Alta California March 12, 1891