A runaway train derails in downtown Olympia, killing one, on March 13, 1959.

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 9/09/2006
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7929
On March 13, 1959, a crewless, runaway 15-car train strikes the Union Pacific Depot in downtown Olympia with such force that it goes through the building and crosses 4th Avenue, destroying half a city block. One man is killed and 20 persons are injured seriously enough to require hospitalization. Property damage exceeds $250,000. The cause of the accident is quickly traced to the train crew’s failure to properly set brakes on the cars and subsequently leaving the train unattended.

A Careless Crew

Late on Friday afternoon, March 13, 1959, a Union Pacific train stopped at a switching point on the northern fringes of  Tumwater, about two miles south of downtown Olympia.  Members of a switching crew uncoupled a section of the train from the locomotive, but in doing so, failed to set hand brakes and did not properly apply air brakes on the 15 cars that had been uncoupled. The crew then briefly left the train unattended. The train had been parked on a slight downhill grade, and soon began coasting north toward Olympia.  It quickly gathered momentum, reaching speeds estimated by various witnesses at between 30 and 60 miles an hour as it rolled toward the Union Pacific Depot on 4th Avenue in downtown Olympia. Twelve of the 15 train cars were loaded with plywood and plasterboard, and the total weight of the 15-car runaway train was later estimated at 900 tons.   

At 5:44 p.m., the train thundered through a dead end railway bumper guard at the depot and burst through a brick wall into the depot, instantly killing Kenneth Dilley (1923-1959), a telegraph operator for the railroad.  The train then smashed through another brick wall and out into 4th Avenue, traveling more than 300 feet as it crossed the street. The first car demolished the Sta-Well Health Service. The second car twisted into Bill’s Kitchen, Haumann’s Floral and Gift Shop, and the Eastside Club Tavern. The third car struck the China Clipper, another cafe, and two more cars and an empty gondola car overturned in 4th Avenue. Another two cars stopped in the depot itself. 

Like a Dynamite Explosion

"It sounded like a dynamite explosion," said William Crane, who was sitting in the China Clipper with his wife. "Then the freight cars hit.  I ducked under the table and hollered for my wife. When it was over we crawled out and went through the rear of the restaurant" (Seattle Times). 

Olympian James Yenney was depositing a letter in a mailbox near the depot’s entrance when the train hit.  As he dropped the letter, he said, "the building seemed to come apart.  I ran like the devil to the middle of the intersection [of 4th Avenue and Adams Street], covered with dust and with wood and planks falling around me" (The Sunday Olympian). 

Firefighters and rescue workers found Dilley’s body in the attic of the Sta–Well Health Service, more than 300 feet from the depot and on the other side of 4th Avenue.  Twenty persons were injured seriously enough to require hospital treatment, and others sustained more minor injuries.  Property damage exceeded $250,000, and half a city block along 4th Avenue, in the heart of Olympia’s business district, was destroyed. 

A Union Pacific Safety Lapse

Within 24 hours of the accident, Union Pacific Railroad conceded that the accident had been caused by the switching crew’s failure to set hand brakes on the cars after uncoupling the 15-car section of the train from the locomotive. On March 20, 1959, the State Public Service Commission held a hearing to investigate the cause of the accident, and released a report of its findings on April 1. 

The Commission ruled that the accident was caused by the switching crew’s failure to follow safety rules, specifically to set hand brakes after uncoupling the train and to properly apply air brakes on the cars which later coasted out of control.  The Commission further found that that crew’s failure to leave a brakeman with the cars after they were uncoupled contributed to the accident. The Commission also found Union Pacific at fault for failing to require observance of safety rules. The Commission said in its report that "there is nothing to indicate that the railroad management was not aware of the operating procedures being used" (The Daily Olympian).  The Commission’s report also criticized the railroad for not providing derail switches (designed to derail runaway train cars) prior to the accident along the downhill grade from Tumwater to Olympia.   

Sources: “Runaway Freight Cars Crash in Olympia,” Seattle Daily Times, March 14, 1959, p. 2;  “Olympia Cleans Up After Killer Freight,” The Sunday Olympian,  March 15, 1959, pp. 1, 2;  “Freight Cars Kill Man,” Ibid., March 15, 1959, p. 4;  “Train Traffic, Safety Signal Action Urged,” The Daily Olympian,  April 1, 1959, p. 1;  “Blame Set In Olympia Rail Wreck,” Seattle Daily Times, April 1, 1959;  “Failure to Set Brakes Caused Boxcar Runaway, State Finds,” Ibid.,  April 7, 1959. 

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