ELKO – While Elko may often seem a bucolic place to live, our region has suffered its share of disasters.
According to historian Jan Petersen, many events from the past can be classified among the worst tragedies of our history as a community. However, the five that hold title as the most severe in terms of loss of life and property damage include the Great Pandemic, the Winter of White Death, the City of San Francisco train wreck, the TransLuxe Airline crash that killed all but one passenger, and the Stockmen’s Hotel fire.
“The train wreck caused chaos,” said Petersen. “Twenty some people were killed and over 100 were injured.”
Here is the list of northeastern Nevada disasters, in chronological order:
Winter of White Death
The Winter of White Death went down as one of the worst in the region’s history. The winter of 1889–90 was devastating to ranchers here in Northern Nevada. Estimates claim that nearly 95 percent of the area’s cattle died that year due to deep snows and frightfully cold temperatures. A legend from the time says that a person could walk a hundred miles along the Mary’s River and step from cow to cow without touching the ground.
Two important changes emerged from this tragedy. After that time ranchers decided it was best to have a ton of hay on hand over the winter for each brood cow. Prices for land where hay could be raised essentially rose. Devastation to the cattle industry opened way for the development of sheep ranching, which caused friction between these two forms of commerce due to grazing rights.
The Great Pandemic was the first of two pandemics involving the H1N1 influenza virus. It is recorded as one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history, infecting some 500 million people worldwide. People in the Arctic and as far flung as the Pacific Islands were stricken with the disease. Deaths are estimated to be between 50 and 100 million, nearly five percent of the world’s population at the time.
The Spanish Flu, as it was nicknamed, was atypical in that it predominantly killed healthy, young adults rather than youth and the elderly.
In Nevada reports of the illness were slow to be validated. Getting information to the Public Health Service was much more difficult in the rural areas.
On Oct. 15, 1918, health officials confirmed 38 cases of influenza in the state. Counts of infection and deaths increased.
In Elko County, teacher Eleanor Holland scoffed at wearing a then required face mask.
“It didn’t seem so funny when I came down with the flu and nearly died. Fortunately, none of the other teachers got it though they all helped take care of me.”
The flu coincided with WWI and soldiers often made their way to and from service via train. A doctor was stationed in Montello to check the health of people on board. The town hotel was made into a makeshift hospital. There is a simple, granite monument in the graveyard stating that 10 unknown soldiers died there of the flu epidemic. They have never been identified.
The railroad contributed to the spread of the disease. Wendover, Halleck, Starr Valley, Deeth, Montello, Elko, Carlin, Battle Mountain, Winnemucca and Lovelock were highly impacted due to their location along the train route.
In all of Nevada, which had a very small population at the time, the State Board of Health reported 3,914 cases of flu. They recorded a total of 734 deaths, but the number is believed to be as high as 800.
City of San Francisco
Southern Pacific’s steamliner, the City of San Francisco, was billed as the fastest and most powerful ever built. It was nearly a quarter of a mile in length and could travel from Chicago to the West Coast in about 40 hours. The locomotive was claimed as the safest engineering in rail travel.
The City of San Francisco wrecked after leaving Carlin in the evening of August 12, 1939. The westbound train derailed 40 miles west of Elko.
Engineer Ed Hecox said he saw a tumbleweed on the rails right before the accident. It was later believed that the train was sabotaged, but a guilt party was never discovered.
“As the engine stopped I ran back,” said Hecox. “All I could hear was the screams and moans of the injured and dying. Everywhere there was dust. I could not see a single living person.”
Passenger F.S. Foote Jr. said the train was hitting the curves uncomfortably after they left Carlin. He said two beers were propelled from a table and that a woman was hurled form her seat to the aisle, making everyone laugh. This was just a few minutes before the derailment.
The train lurched at around 9.33 p.m. and then jumped the tracks. It shot out from the rails about 900 feet with five cars ending up in the river.
Frantic rescue attempts ensued for the next couple of hours and with the addition of onlookers any evidence of wrongdoing was destroyed. Later, investigators discovered a couple of jackets and tools were found in the water near the crash. Some speculated that the railroad was at fault. Suspects were questioned and the railroad conducted a hearing but, in the end, no one was ever charged and the accident remains a mystery.
Tragedy struck once again on Sept. 5, 1946. During the early hours of the morning a San Francisco bound Trans-Luxury Airliner tried to land at the Elko airport. Heavy fog hung low along the ground and upon descent, the airliner crashed and burned.
Twenty-one people were killed, including one infant. Miraculously, there was one young survivor.
When help arrived after the crash rescue workers found 18 bodies thrown from the plane and three others inside the smoldering wreckage.
“The plane was still burning,” wrote Elko Daily Free Press editor Chris Sheerin. “Bodies were strewn for more than 100 feet around. They thought all were dead. Then they heard a child crying.”
The young child was found in the brush near a woman who was unconscious but later died.
“I heard the baby crying,” said mortician Robely Burns. “He was bawling something awful. His crying was loud enough to be heard over the crackle of the flames.”
The boy was taken to the hospital.
“He was cold as ice when he came in,” said nursing superintendent Marie Herbster.
The child was later determined to be Peter Link from Brooklyn. He complained of pain in his chest and arm but was later was determined to be physically fine. However, for the short time that Peter was in the hospital he continually cried for his mother. As it turned out, Peter lost his entire immediate family in the crash, including his 6- month-old sibling.
News of the devastating crash spread across the country amidst the gloom of a nation trying to recover from the horror of World War II.
“While the nation received the news of the fatal crash near Elko this morning with its usual calm, being used to great disasters, it was electrified by the fact that a blue-eyed boy of 2 years had escaped miraculously from the wreck,” Sheerin wrote.
Later, the boy was determined to be 3 years old.
Peter was soon deemed the “miracle boy.” Gifts poured in along with letters from the public offering to care for the orphan.
Blood relatives came forth and about a week after the crash Peter’s uncle arrived from Brooklyn and took the boy back to his grandmother.
The crash was later investigated and it was determined that headwinds between Sinclair and Rock Springs, Wyo. had caused too much fuel usage. The speed of the plane had dropped severely and the pilot made the decision to land at the nearest airport. The pilot was warned of the ground fog but he made an emergency judgement that turned out to be fatal for many.
Records show that as of 2002 Peter Link was 59 years old and living in New York City.
In 1957 a blaze took a city landmark. The Stockmen’s hotel, location of many big band performances, caught fire causing extensive destruction and a number of people escaped death with the help of hotel employees and firemen.
According to an article in the Elko Daily Free Press, it was the most destructive blaze in Elko’s history.
Manager Dick Toothman later told the newspaper that the fire started from an oil leak in one of the kitchen ranges at around 8:30 p.m. By 10:30 p.m. the entire building had been reduced to ruins. Onlookers feared the blaze would spread to nearby buildings.
The doomed hotel was an economic axe to the city. The hotel losses were estimated to be more than $1.7 million. The blaze also put 108 employees out of work.
The Future Farmers of America was holding a banquet at the hotel that evening with 212 people in attendance. When the blaze was learned of the attendees rushed throughout the hotel warning people to escape.
“We were extremely fortunate that the fire broke out at the hour it did,” said Toothman. “There were some 50 or 60 people in the rooms. If it had been later there would have been more and it is almost a certainty that some lives would have been lost.”
During the razing a huge sign at the top of the building crashed to the ground as the wall beneath it crumbled. National guardsmen were called out to maintain the hundreds of curious spectators and keep them from harm.
During the blaze there was concern that an explosion might occur if liquid gas storage containers caught fire. The gas was released without explosion but huge flames did shoot out.
As the building burned, owner Dan Bilbao announced that he would make immediate plans to erect a new building.”
“We will build again as soon as possible,” he said about the disaster.