Monday, May 6, 2013

Train Wreck at Boulder

At four o’clock on the afternoon of October 15, 1890, a train laden with ore on the Northern Pacific’s Helena, Boulder Valley & Butte Railroad chugged south along its rugged route from Helena to Boulder. Samuel T. Hauser filed articles of incorporation, with himself as president, and financed the line, built in 1887. Although intended to enter Butte, the line never extended to Butte and ended at Calvin. On that October day in 1890, the locomotive, four freight cars full of ore, and a caboose made its way up the nine miles to the summit of Boulder Hill at the Zenith station. This rugged route consisted of three short tunnels, several wooden trestles on a 3 percent grade, and several sixteen-degree curves. The train was moving at no more than ten miles per hour as regulations required. As the train passed over the first bridge south of the Zenith station, the trestle collapsed beneath it and the train fell into the ravine below.

Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives, PAc 2006-26.23
The caboose and one of the ore cars landed upright. Miraculously the only injury was a broken arm, but for engineer H. H. Mayhew and his seven-man crew, the accident was a horrific event. Mayhew was so traumatized he could not work and sued the railroad. He used his five thousand dollar settlement to open a cigar store in Anaconda.

Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives, PAc 2006-26.24
Northern Pacific investigators determined that the bridge design was not faulty. Rather, after the trestle was constructed, workers forgot to tighten the bolts. Northern Pacific maintenance crews spent the next several weeks tightening bolts on all the other trestles on the Helena, Boulder Valley & Butte line.

Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives, PAc 2006-26.22


  1. Interesting to note that the Interstate today runs through the second photo. Also, I doubt ore was going south to Boulder and Elkhorn. The smelter was in Wickes which would be behind the train. They might have been empty ore cars or perhaps they were hauling coal to Boulder. — Dan Stinson, Helena

  2. If you look carefully at the pictures, it's almost certain the train was going uphill toward the summit from the Boulder side. Only four cars would indicate heavy ore rather than coal, so Dan is right it almost had to be going to Wickes.

    Also, I'm sure the crew originally tightened the bolts, but probably never re-tightened them after the green wood dried, a common occurance.