Camp MacArthur Troop Train Derailment

On June 18, 1918, a troop train carrying soldiers from Camp MacArthur’s 80th Field Artillery left East Waco and traveled eastward on the Cotton Belt line, heading toward a southern training camp. After traveling for fifteen minutes (about seven miles), the train derailed just north of Selby, killing Corporals Laurn Harrell and August Handschumacher, Jr. and injuring about thirty military personnel and four railroad employees.

According to a report made by the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) on the incident, Troop Train Number 264 consisted of fourteen passenger coaches, six freight cars, and a caboose, and was a Baldwin Consolidation-type, 2-8-0, Number 510, of the St. Louis Southwestern Railway of Texas, also known as the Cotton Belt line.

The derailment occurred as the train approached a trestle crossing the Tehuacana Creek. After an official investigation and upon hearing statements from the train’s engineer, Statham, the ICC came to the conclusion that a sun kink served as the main factor in the accident. Sun kinks can occur when extreme heat causes rails to bulge or spread. At the time of the accident on that June day, it was reported to be 103 degrees. Statham reported to the agency that the sun kink was “3 to 5 inches in width and about half a rail length long, located about 400 feet south of the trestle; he then set the air [brakes] in emergency and jumped.”

The ICC report also factored in the poor condition of the track: “this section was not properly supported by a ballast, and should not have been permitted to remain in that condition.” This information led to the determination that the locomotive began its derailment 113 feet south of the trestle, causing the engine to turn over when it began to cross. A Waco News-Tribune account of June 19, 1918, states: "at the time of the wreck [the train] was passing over a wooden bridge across Tehuacana Creek. As the engine went onto the bridge, timbers suddenly gave way and the locomotive ploughed through.”

The ICC found no mechanical problems with the Baldwin Locomotive Number 510. However, the arrangement of the cars made the event more tragic. During the derailment, the engine’s tender cistern detached from its frame, and unfortunately, the first passenger car directly behind it was composed entirely of wood. The tender’s frame and tank practically demolished the wooden coach, and the two deaths and many of the injuries occurred in this car. The ICC claimed that placing this lighter wooden coach behind the locomotive with the heavier steel cars behind it “undoubtedly increased the danger of injury to the passengers.”

Much speculation followed the incident as to the cause. On June 19, 1918, the Waco News-Tribune reported on a popular belief: “The favorite opinion of the hundreds of officers, camp and railroad officials, and citizen spectators, was that the bridge or the rails had been tampered with, by persons knowing of the troop movement.” With the United States into its second year of involvement in World War I, it is not surprising that such theories of sabotage were being put forth.  Just a few days after the derailment, the investigation reports debunked these theories.