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Kevin Bonham, Forum Communications Co., Published April 15 2012

Survivor recalls horror of 1945 train crash that killed 34 in North Dakota

BROCKET, N.D. – It was a warm, sunny day on Aug. 9, 1945, when 20-year-old Marian Pederson and her parents boarded the Great Northern Railway’s Empire Builder in Grand Forks.

Heading back home to Brocket, the train – the first of two westbound that afternoon – was scheduled to arrive by midevening at Lakota, about 13 miles away.

In those waning days of the war, passenger train traffic was so heavy that the Empire Builder normally ran two separate trains on the same schedule. One 11-car train followed about 25 minutes behind the first 11-car train.

The Pedersons’ train never made it to their destination. A mechanical problem – an overheated journal or bearing – forced it to make an unscheduled stop on the west side of Michigan, N.D.

The second train couldn’t grind to a halt in time. They collided at about 7:20 p.m., the engine of the trailing train slamming into the back of the first, shearing the luxurious Pullman observation deck car and thrusting it over the top of the engine.

Accounts of the time said it was like an inner section of a telescope sliding into an outer section.

It was the worst train accident in the history of North Dakota or the Great Northern Railway. About 300 people were in the first train and 600 in the second, according to official reports. In the final count, 34 died, including 19 service members, and another 312 were injured.

“I’ll remember it as long as I live,” said Marian Miller, now 87 and married.

Going too fast

Although she is a rather slightly built woman, Miller is plenty spry, with a prominently jutting jaw and the raspy voice of someone who might have smoked for decades, although she quit the habit years ago.

She still lives in Brocket, where she and her husband, Jimmy, have operated Miller’s Bar for 50 years.

In her first four years after high school, she taught in one-room schools, first in rural Petersburg, then in rural Tolna, before moving on to Cleveland Consolidated School in rural Brocket.

On Aug. 9, 1945, she was on summer vacation from teaching.

Miller said she had stayed with her great uncle for a few days in Hamilton, N.D., near Cavalier in the state’s northeast corner. Returning home to Brocket that day, she said, she took the bus to Grand Forks to rendezvous with her parents, who were visiting her dad’s sister.

“I understand the trains were running late,” Miller said. “So we boarded the train, riding along nicely, and along Larimore or Niagara, where it kind of bends or curves, when my mom said, ‘This train is going way too fast,’ ” Miller said, first repeating her mother’s words in Norwegian, then in English.

A sudden jolt

There was a sudden jolt, and the passengers were told to stay where they were, she said. A suitcase had fallen on her mom from above and left a big bump on her head, she said. “Really, there wasn’t much hollering or screaming that I can remember. We were all just so stunned; we kind of froze.”

Afterwards, they waited at the station as passengers were checked for injuries.

“We sat on the grass alongside the tracks and watched all those terrible things, carrying dead bodies out, and many of them were servicemen,” she said. “It was so sad. I’ve told the story so many times, but it’s still hard to describe.

“There was a lady hanging from her waist down on the side of a train car. They were trying to get her out. It took quite a while. Then all of a sudden, she had asked for a cigarette. She smoked her cigarette.

“She was waving her arms, and her hair was dangling. And they finally got her out, which took some time. And she died.”

Miller’s three brothers were in nearby Lakota that evening, watching a movie at the local theater, when an announcement was made about the train accident. They left for Michigan, where they found Miller and their parents on the grass.

“Then, Mom and Dad and I, when we got home, everybody was hugging, and we were crying,” Miller said. “I knew we all said our prayers when we went to bed that night.”

A sad homecoming

News of the Michigan accident made the front page of the next day’s New York Times, but it quickly faded from the headlines. The day of the accident was also the same day the second atomic bomb was dropped on Japan, and attention turned to prospects of an end to World War II.

A few days later, Miller and two cousins traveled to Lakota after hearing that some of the bodies were stored in a garage near a funeral home and the public was allowed in.

“That’s where I noticed the soldiers, the service guys had holes in the bottoms of their shoes,” she said. “One person, I can’t remember her name, she had a two-by-four right through her head.

“It was a sad thing, gruesome. Oh, my gosh. I have regretted going in there many times. I thought we were crazy for going in there. But we were all very young.

“To think that all those soldiers and sailors had survived the war and were going home to be with their families, to end up getting killed like that, it’s just awful.”


Kevin Bonham writes for the Grand Forks Herald


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