Speeding freight train rams railroad cars in front of the Marysville Great Northern Depot, demolishing the depot and killing two, on June 6, 1969.

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 7/05/2007
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8182
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At 3:44 a.m. on June 6, 1969, a speeding freight train, later found to be traveling 63 m.p.h., rams a caboose and three freight cars sitting on the main track in front of the Marysville Great Northern Depot. Two men in an engine that is switching cars on a nearby siding are killed and two men in the speeding train are injured. Damage estimates exceed $1 million. The Marysville Depot is demolished and will never be rebuilt.

A Speeding Train

In the predawn hours of Friday, June 6, 1969, a 35-car Great Northern Railway freight train, coming from Vancouver, raced south through Snohomish County toward Marysville. It blew past two warning semaphore signals as it approached the town -- the first signal ordered the train to slow to 30 m.p.h., and the second ordered the train to stop and then proceed with caution -- and sped into downtown Marysville.

Marysville police sergeant Tom Hoistad and another police officer, Robert Curtiss, were on routine patrol along State Avenue in Marysville when they spotted the speeding train. Hoistad knew the through-town speed limit for trains was 25 m.p.h., and the police officers began following the train. But there was nothing they could do to stop what came next.

The Marysville Great Northern Depot was located between Cedar and Delta avenues and 5th and 6th streets, east of the tracks. Two flatcars loaded with telephone poles, a boxcar, and a caboose were sitting on the main track in front of the depot; on a siding nearby, a five-member crew was switching an engine and two cars. Two crewmen were in the engine.

A Catastrophic Crash

At 3:44 a.m., the speeding freight train roared into the station, ramming the caboose and three freight cars parked in front of the depot and catapulting them into the engine and the two cars that were switching on the siding. The top of the engine on the siding was ripped off by the impact, throwing the two trainmen from the cab and killing them instantly.  The two men were identified as Joe Haegely, age 42 or 43 (accounts differ), of Seattle, and Howard Dearing, 27, of Marysville.

A nearby service-station attendant had been idly listening to the switch engine working and then suddenly heard the onrushing freight train and thunderous impact. He recounted: “The ground shook like it was a real earthquake.  I saw freight cars, box cars, shooting into the air, and bright flashes of light.  It seemed like all hell breaking loose. Cars were shooting clean over the top of each other, and standing on end, and then falling on the ground” (The Seattle Times, June 6, 1969, p.1).

The freight cars that had been sitting on the tracks were pushed more than three blocks south to 2nd Street (1,135 feet) by the force of the impact. About 20 cars derailed, scattering wreckage approximately 400 feet along the track between 2nd and 6th streets and knocking some of the rail cars up to 50 feet away from the tracks.  Wheel assemblies from some of the freight cars were torn away and hurled 200 feet through the air. At least one other car crashed into the depot itself, tearing off about a quarter of the building on its southwestern side, and heavily damaging the remainder of the station. Flying debris tore telephone and electrical lines from their poles, freezing the wall clock inside the depot at the moment of impact. At that hour of the morning, though, no one was inside the depot.

The railroad cars landed every which way -- upside down, pointing skyward, on their sides, and at least three settled on top of each other. A number of the demolished cars burst into 20-foot-tall flames, but firefighters from Marysville, Getchell, Midway, and Everett responded and had the fires out by 7 a.m.  Authorities had a brief scare when they saw one that boxcar was labeled explosives and another overturned car was labeled chlorine, but breathed easier when they found out that the two cars were empty. In fact, 34 of the 35 freight cars on the speeding train were empty, a fortunate aside in an unfortunate accident.

As police officers converged on the scene in the minutes after the crash, they got another scare.  The Stanwood police notified the Marysville police that another southbound train was approaching Marysville, and the Stanwood police had not been able to alert it to the disaster. The Washington State Patrol quickly drove north of Marysville, put flares on the tracks, and stopped the oncoming train.

The engineer on the speeding train, John Schlosstein, 66, of Seattle, sustained arm lacerations but was quickly released from the hospital. The front brakeman on the same train, Hardy Clay, 22, also of Seattle, sustained more serious injuries to his chest and head, but survived. A subsequent investigation by Great Northern established that Schlosstein was "unconscious" immediately prior to the accident, possibly caused by adverse affects from medication that he was taking. Great Northern also concluded that Clay contributed to the accident by failing to maintain a proper lookout as the train approached the station.

However, Schlosstein had also been the engineer on the train on its original trip to Vancouver a day or so earlier, and claimed that the Alertor safety control system in the engineer's seat was inoperative on the train's journey north.  This was an electric system with a built-in antenna in the engineer's seat designed to detect motion. If no motion was detected in the engineer's seat for 20 seconds, an alarm would be triggered; if there was no movement for another 10 seconds, the train's brakes would automatically apply. Schlosstein failed to report the claimed malfunction as required, and an investigation after the accident established that the Alertor system had been tested in Vancouver and found to be working. Investigators found that the system had subsequently been cut out of the seat, but when it was tested after the accident, it worked. Schlosstein was later convicted of two counts of manslaughter in Snohomish County Superior Court in 1970.

Worst In Marysville History

It was the worst train crash in Marysville’s history. It took more than four days just to remove all of the railroad cars from the scene of the crash. In the interim, looky-loos descended on the scene, causing traffic jams which further slowed the cleanup effort. Several weeks after the accident, people were still picking up scattered remains from the crash site. Damage was estimated at over $1 million, mostly to the trains, tracks, and the rail depot itself; the only other property damage reported was to one of the nearby Snohomish County Berry Growers packing plant’s trucks.

The Marysville depot was so heavily damaged by the crash that what was left of the building was torn down within a week. It had served Marysville since 1891. The depot was never rebuilt.

Sources: Robert Barr, “Massive Rail Crash Kills 2,” The Seattle Times, June 6, 1969, p. 1; “High Speed Blamed For Train Collision,” Ibid., June 7, 1969, p. 10;  "Jury Convicts Rail Engineer," Ibid., April 30, 1970, p. A-4;  “Crash Is Probed At Marysville,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 7, 1969, p. B;  “Spectacular Train Wreck Kills Two Friday Morning,” Marysville Globe, June 12, 1969, p. 1;  An Illustrated History of Skagit and Snohomish Counties, Vol. 1 (Interstate Publishing Company, 1906), 346;  Great Northern Archive, GN Accident Reports, "Marysville, Wash., 1969," website accessed June 7, 2011 (http://gnarchive.com/incidents/1969_marysville/marysville_1969.html).
Note: This essay was expanded on June 10, 2011.

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