Here is Gene's story:

I went to Martinez to photograph a westbound SP passenger extra. It turned out to be an officers' special: SDP45 #3201, a sleeper, and two business cars; not worth the effort, though it's a good photo. While waiting, I heard the Schellville Turn on the radio with the Suisun Bay Bridge tender, and decided that since the passenger train was a disappointment, I'd follow the Turn over the hill into Lombard and onto the NWP, which I was then documenting in its last wholly SP-owned era. I lived, and still live, in Sonoma County, so it was a roundabout way home.

After snapping a nice shot at Creston and another at Napa Junction, I drove ahead to position myself on the opposite (west) bank of the Napa River. I never had gotten a photo of a train on the bridge, and here was a chance, in perfect lighting. It was a long wait. My scanner batteries went dead, so I just sat there and enjoyed the warm afternoon. The owner of the property where I was waiting would come out to chat every now and then. 

Suddenly a company van drove up and stopped at the east approach to the bridge. The SP employee shooed a couple of kids off the bridge. The owner's wife was on the balcony of their home and she shouted to us, "Did you hear what he said? There's a runaway train coming!" I looked at the homeowner, and we decided this was too weird to be true. I remember even saying, "Nah. Couldn't be!" 

But it was true. The two engines, SP3781 and 3424, rolled onto the bridge at about 20 mph, the lead one shattering the timbers which form a fender to protect the bridge from water traffic. I had my Pentax up to my eye, and fired off a sequence of five shots, two of which were perfectly timed photos of the 3781 and then the 3424 hitting the water. The 3781 wound up submerged. 3424 remained with one end hung up on the bridge, an alarm bell clanging inside its empty cab. 

I'm sure my old friend Capt. Gillam of the SP Police, with whom I worked on several occasions (I was a local police officer at the time), checked out my story carefully in light of the possible 'railfan contribution' to the incident. 

Next day, there was a big crowd present as two big cranes on barges lifted the 3424 off the bridge where it had hung up. The SP Police let me onto the opposite end of the bridge to photograph the lifting of the 3424 out of the river at dusk, after a long day's underwater work. The 3781 took longer; I had gone home, very tired, by the time it was fished out at about 3 a.m.

David P. Morgan of TRAINS, when he learned that I had the photo sequence of the splashdown, called me with an offer I couldn't refuse. Anything to keep those photos from going to Carstens, I guess. 

The photo sequence is still posted on my office wall. It gets a lot of comments. A thousand sets were sold to various SP employees and officials from as near as Oakland to as far as New Orleans.

. . .

Rollin Bredenberg tells the story from another perspective: the sixth floor of One Market Street, San Francisco -- SP's headquarters, on the Friday afternoon of the incident: 

In 1983 I was general manager of the southern region of SP. Charlie Babers was the general manager for the northern region which included the Western Division. Buck Hord, the general supt. of operations planning and control got a call from Hank Jay, the chief dispatcher at Roseville, with San Francisco's first notification of the launching of the two geeps. Buck, Charlie, Bill Lacy (the v.p.o.) and I were in Buck's office sitting around the "skateboard" in the war room. Buck gave the news to Charlie and Bill in very solemn tones. Bill was more than a little irritated as it was getting close to leaving time on a Friday afternoon and it was going to be up to someone to tell the press. Bill wanted no part of it and sent Charlie up to the eighth floor to tell Rob Krebs. 

Charlie left the room with a very anxious look on his face. Buck and I found other things we needed to be doing for a few minutes. No longer than ten minutes later, Charlie returned from 8 shaking his head. I have to assume Rob had weightier things on his mind that afternoon because Charlie reported that he simply said, "You gotta be kidding!" and roared with laughter. To my knowledge, that is the only time he has seen humor in such an incident.

. . .

Graham Henry also recalls the incident:

I was working for the SP as a maintenance of way electrician at that time. We were getting
ready to call it a day, as we worked 7 to 3:30, when the phone call came in that there were
two units in the river! My first thought was, “Baloney! There's no way two units could be
in the river without destroying the bridge.” When the bridge was in full lift, which is
where it was kept except when a train wanted to cross it, I could touch the counterweights
with my outstretched hand. I am 5-11. 

As it turned out a signal maintainer had picked up one of the crew and they took off after the two units. The maintainer let the crewman off so he could try and get aboard to stop the two units and raced to the bridge to lower it.

The crewman was unsuccessful in his attempt to board it. The maintainer arrived at the
bridge and unlocked the control cabinet and pushed the button to lower the bridge. I have done this myself on more than one occasion. As the bridge started down (it's 90-plus feet above the river) the two units entered the bridge circuit and tripped a relay which shuts off all power to the bridge. This stopped the bridge from coming down and the lesser of two evils took place. The units went in the river. If they had hit the counterweight it would have badly damaged the bridge. I understand one unit had just been rebuilt a short time before the swim.

I was one of the SP employees who bought a set of Gene's pictures.

. . .

The Brazos bridge was the site of a similar incident in the 1950s. At that time, the bridge was a swing bridge similar to the Black Point or Petaluma bridges on the NWP:

A Baldwin A-B-A set ended up going into the river, but the engineer WAS in the cab on the leading unit. They were proceeding from Lombard to Schellville as a caboose hop, after setting out about 100 cars at Lombard. The engineer forgot to remove the wooden end cap from the bail of the independent brake valve. While against the rules to block the bail down, this serves to keep the engine brakes released when applying the automatic air to the rest of the train. 

In this case, having left the plug in the bail, the only brakes the engineer had on the consist of three heavy units and a caboose were the caboose brakes only. When he tried to stop at the red signal at the bridge (it was open) not a lot happened and everyone went for a swim. The plug was found in the independent brake valve bail when they fished the units out of the river. The Admiral got a 90 day "vacation," too.

I had a few drinks one night in Martinez with a fellow who was the head brakeman on that train. He said when he surfaced, he saw his pack of cigarettes floating down the river. He swam like hell to retrieve them, as (laughing) he said he knew that it was going to be a really long night, what with all the officials wanting to know all about what happened, etc. He just didn't want to be without any cigarettes for all that time.

-Cowboy Jim


All photos © 1983, Gene Poon.

In 1983 a train known as the Schellville Turn, which went from Oakland to Suisun-Fairfield then on to Lombard (Napa Junction) was tied down, but the air bled off and it rolled away railroad east (geographic west) toward the Brazos Drawbridge on the Napa river, which was always left open for boat traffic. The result was two geeps "taking a bath." Gene Poon was in the right place at the right time and shot the slides.

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Tri-City Society of Model Engineers.
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Schellville Turn Splashdown