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Kevin Bonham, Forum Communications, Published July 20 2012

1945 rail accident in North Dakota one of worst in US history

MICHIGAN, N.D. – Jim Wilson slowly moved through the historic Michigan Train Depot on Friday, stopping at each display, studying the photographs and reading news accounts of the tragic train accident that claimed the life of his first cousin almost 67 years ago.

U.S. Navy Ensign Rose Ellen Wilson was one of 34 people, 20 of them service members, who were killed when their stalled westbound passenger train was struck from behind by another passenger train on Aug. 9, 1945.

It was one of the worst rail accidents in U.S. history.

“It’s remarkable how much of the train telescoped into that car,” he said, his eyes beginning to dampen.

He and Margery Baragona traveled from Santa Barbara, Calif., to this town of 294 in Nelson County this week to witness the dedication of a memorial to those who died.

The event begins at 11 a.m. today at Veterans Memorial Park in Michigan.

A grieving father

Rose Ellen Wilson was traveling from the East Coasts with her friends Lt. Adda Jane Patterson and Ensign Adelaide Frances McManus that summer day. Members of the Navy’s Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service program, known as the Women’s Reserve, they were on their way to a new assignment in Seattle.

Along with their supervisor, Lt. Louis Stuller, they were part of the Electronic Field Service Group at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C.

“Rose Ellen’s mother died the year before. I would have been about 11 at the time,” Jim Wilson said. “Uncle Chester lost his wife and his daughter in the span of a year. He grieved for Rose Ellen for the rest of his days, about another 10 years.”

She graduated from Pomona (Calif.) College in 1942 with a chemistry degree, before entering the military.

“At her mother’s funeral in 1944, she was so taken with the minister she said that she hoped he would officiate at her funeral,” Jim Wilson said. “He scoffed at the very idea, but a year later, he did just that.”

Wilson is among families of 10 victims who plan to be at the dedication, according to Maria Vasichek, one of the organizers.

“It’s overwhelming, absolutely overwhelming to think of the effort that these people in Michigan have made to do this,” Wilson said. “It’s touching, very touching.”

Busy time on rails

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 following the other by about 20 minutes.

In the case of the Michigan tragedy, the lead train was filled with military personnel, many of them returning home after the end of the war in Europe.

The lead train developed a mechanical problem – an overheated journal, or bearing – that forced it to make unscheduled stops between Grand Forks and Michigan, each time the following train growing closer. At each stop, the train’s flagman placed flares along the tracks as a warning.

The train ground to a halt finally on the west edge of Michigan, on a curve that leads out of town.

This time, the following train couldn’t stop in time. They collided at about 7:22 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.

A coroner’s inquest held on Aug. 14, 1945, at the Nelson County Courthouse in nearby Lakota, N.D., officially listed the cause of the accident as the failure of railroad personnel on the lead train to “provide adequate protection for the preceding train.”

The Great Northern Railway responded by establishing a new warning system.

Memory of Jane

Among the people Wilson will meet at the memorial today is Bill Patterson III from Colorado, who is a nephew of Adda Jane Patterson.

“Both my sister and I enlisted,” said his father, 91-year-old Bill Patterson Jr., in an email interview from his home in South Carolina.

Bill Patterson Jr. joined the Army and Jane Patterson, as she is known in the family, joined the Navy WAVES.

She graduated from Bucknell University in 1934, earned a master’s degree from Cornell University, and taught school in Middletown, Pa.

“The Red Cross failed to get in touch with me,” he said. “I arrived in Boston, called home on Aug. 21, and found out my sister had been killed and just buried on Aug. 18.

“This memorial is especially meaningful to me at this time, because it touches my children and grandchildren who have for years heard of Aunt Jane, but will now be much closer to her memory,” he said. “I’m sure family members will be visiting in coming years.”


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Kevin Bonham writes for the Grand Forks Herald