Tehachapi's Online Community News & Entertainment Guide

The 1932 train crash

This time every year I start to get that feeling that an important date is just around the corner and that feeling has been with me for decades.

Back in the early 1970s, I was in a hobby shop and the owner handed me a book about the 5,000 series 4-10-2 Southern Pacific locomotives. The Boynton written "Three Barrels of Steam" started me on a journey that I continue with today. The great cloud burst of 1932 over the Tehachapis had a chapter dedicated to it as one of the locomotives involved with the story just happened to be one of those 4-10-2s. Being it was in a location that was the focal point of the storm and the story that surrounded it and its crew. It was one of the great stories of drama to ever come out of the Tehachapi area and it was that one chapter that had me wanting know more of the story.

Many years of research, reaching out and visiting the location helped me put together a program that I have shared with many groups that helps to take the tragic story and make it personal, as I try to put people in that moment when the world turned into a kaleidoscope of swirling waters, deafening sounds and catastrophe. As a storyteller, my delivery is not just words and statistics, it's about putting people in the moment to help them understand the enormity of that moment.

Human experience is something we are all a part of and stories like this play out in many different ways all the time. Because we all act and live in the same manner as all those that perished that night we experience these dramas in the same manner and its what bonds us to history.

The main part of this story is the struggle for life of the crew members of locomotive 5036 that by fate ended up in a location that would end up taking the life of two of them and send the last onward in life with one of the greatest survival stories a man could share.

Engineer Alexander Ross, Fireman Enos Brown and Brakeman Harry Moore had no idea what was in store for them as they fired their beast up the Tehachapi grade as a helper cut in twenty-nine cars in front of the caboose. They did on occasion notice the great weather display that was unfolding over 6,900-foot Bear Mountain and the massive buildup of thunderheads along the crest of Breckenridge to the north. Focusing on the heavy workload, being a helper pushing up to the summit of Tehachapi, they paid little attention to the surroundings as they focused on their tasks.

With the approach of Woodford, a major player in railroading over the Tehachapi's the storm dictated that all railroad operations were to be put on hold and for trains and crews to stand down and hold till operations could be evaluated and rail conditions determined.

As the big three cylinder 4-10-2 eased to a stop fate would play a part as it ended up straddling the massive concrete culvert that was at the choke point of all the runoff from the Tehachapi creek drainage. Little did they know that at that moment destiny was coming their way from the thunderheads and down the canyon as a tidal wave of water that was about to change their lives forever.

The struggle for survival of these three is a story all in itself and its hard to share so much information and drama in this column, not to mention all the other parallel stories that were playing out near our locomotive and its crew here. My intention here is for now just to make sure that we remember that on this upcoming Sept. 30 back in 1932 a story unfolded near here that would send two men to their graves and leave one alive to tell the story to future generations.

I have been blessed to talk to many relatives of this crew and how they are glad that some of us are working to make sure their stories are passed on to future generations. In talking with so many and researching I feel that somehow when that first book back in 1973 made it into my hands that someone out there from that tragic night was sending me a message and putting on a track to share the story with future generations.

Mr. Alexander , Mr. Moore and Mr. Brown your story carries on and I hope to share more of it if the public is touched by your journey that ended up in a ravine in a place today that looks nothing like the night when your world came undone.

In closing I will just share that one night a few years back I made my way to this location on the anniversary date of the great disaster and at 8:05 p.m. when they said the storm hit its deadliest peak. I was standing in the culvert under the current rail operations and at that moment a train passed over me to mark that moment, after it had passed the silence was replaced by the imagination as the sounds from that night of terror had me saying a silent prayer for all those that lived it.

Peace my friends, Bob.