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Corpse a lifesaver in 1922 Montana train wreck

“Corpse Saves Life Of Billings Man in Welch Spur wreck.” That front-page headline. headline in the March 19, 1922, issue of the Billings Gazette probably would have caught the eye of Arne Schmitt, hero of “Sky Dreamer,” and other newspaper readers.

The article said Donald Putnam, an express messenger for the Northern Pacific Railroad, probably owed his life to a dead body. The corpse was being shipped from Butte to an eastern Montana point for internment.

Here's how the Gazette described Putman's good fortune:

He was standing in the baggage car, worst damaged of the stub train’s equipment. It collided with another train, and the force of the impact drove the baggage car into the front end of the day coach. When the dust settled, a train crew member came to the baggage car expecting the worst.

“Well, we might as well look for poor Put; I suppose he's a goner," the crewman said.

Right then, there was movement in a pile of debris in the far end of the car. The rubble included an upended box containing a coffin. Putman crawled out from behind the box, stood up, brushed off dust and found that he had escaped without a scratch.

According to those on the scene, Putman was sorting and stacking baggage at the front of the car when the crash occurred. He was thrown to the rear end, and the baggage car telescoped over its front end. The wreck pushed Putnam into a corner, and trunks, milk cans and other baggage flew backwards with him. Fortunately, the box containing the coffin was pushed upright, and it acted as a barrier “fending off an avalanche that undoubtedly would crushed Putnam to death,” the Gazette said.

Putnam’s view of what happened was obscured, so he could only describe the event in general terms. After a short time of confusion, he crawled out to find trainmen beginning a search for him.

The wreck could have been deadly, according to Ernest J. Neumann of Billings, former manager of Billings Stationary and Office Supply Company and by then a traveling salesman for an eastern manufacturer of filing cabinets. Neumann was one of the passengers in the stub train who was slightly injured.

“It was nothing short of miraculous that more people were not killed or injured,” he said upon his return to Billings.

“Glass was flying everywhere after the trains bumped. All of the windows were shattered, and added to this shower of glass were the heavy glass lighting fixtures overhead.

“Nearly everyone in the coach in which I was riding was thrown to the floor and stunned when impact came. My back was slightly injured at being hurled against the arm rest of my seat.''

Witnesses to the wrecks saw many passengers lying stunned on the coach floor with blood streaming from cuts to their heads and faces, the result of flying glass. The sight prompted someone to “hotfoot” it to nearby Homestake, where a station man reported the accident to Livingston, a major Northern Pacific yard.

Authorities initially thought everyone on the train had been killed. In response, the NP sent a relief train with doctors and nurses from Livingston to Welch Spur. The train made what was believed to be a record run on that stretch of rail. The wreck occurred at 8:01 ' clock, and less than an hour later, the relief train was speeding towards the wreck. It made it in two hours and 3 minutes.

“I was among those who saw the train approaching far down the mountain, and I want to tell you I have no ambition to ride that fast,” Neumann said. Another relief train from Butte, carrying carrying 13 doctors and nurses, arrived at the scene.

Reportedly the collision was caused by the failure of the stub train engineer to head into the siding at Welch Spur to clear the way for train No. 1. Instead, he continued to the lower-end of the siding, intending to back the stub train into the siding. The lower end of the siding, however, was on a sharp curve. A blinding snow storm and escaping steam from the stub train made it impossible for the oncoming Limited train to see the stub train until the first engine of the Limited was within a few feet of the stub train — too late to stop.

What probably saved lives was the fact that the Limited, composed of two engines and 10 coaches, was traveling at only 8-10 mph up a steep grade. Otherwise, if the Limited had been going faster, the impact probably would have pushed the stub train off the track and rolled its cars down the mountain side.

All of which was sobering news to Arne and others at the time. Billings had the busiest train depot in the state, with three railroads serving it and more than two dozen trains arriving and departing daily. Passenger railroads, carrying people, mail, milk, cream and eggs and other express baggage, were the lifeblood of 1920s Montana. They were a generally safe mode of transportation, but every now and then, a wreck resulted in injuries and fatalities. One could not take a safe trip for granted.

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Jamie Larson