Accidents were in the headlines of the Berkeley Daily Gazette 75 years ago.

On Saturday, Aug. 12, 1939 the elite streamliner "City of San Francisco" derailed in Nevada, killing 24 and injuring 121.

Four Berkeleyans were among those killed, and several local residents were injured in the crash, as railcars came off the tracks and some fell from a trestle into the Humboldt River. There were 194 people aboard the train.

The four Berkeley dead were William Burton, Francis Gibbons, Charles A. Johnson, and Leroy Moore, three of them waiters and the fourth a porter on the train. Several Oakland residents, both passengers and railroad staff, were also killed.

Oakland was at the end of the transcontinental railroad and there was a large local community of people in both Berkeley and Oakland who worked on the railroad, many of them African-American. However, only a few of the dead and injured were identified by race in the article.

The Southern Pacific Railroad, owner and operator of the train, said through a representative that "We are proud of the train crew and the way they worked. They did everything that could be done. There was no distinction. Porters, waiters, cooks, conductors, barber, stewardess -- all of them acted as if they had been trained before in what to do in event of such a horror."


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The most well-known Berkeley casualty aboard was Mrs. Helen E. Meiklejohn, "nationally known authority on economics," who lived at 1525 La Loma Ave., with her husband, educator and free speech advocate Alexander Meiklejohn. She "lay for several hours in the dark in an overturned and teetering coach ... finally rescued by cowboys who pulled her through a window and down the wrecked trestle of the bridge to safely," the Gazette reported. She arrived back in Berkeley on the morning of Aug. 14.

Berkeleyan Phillip Short, of 2124 McKinley Ave., was lauded by other passengers for helping some 50 people escape one of the damaged railcars. Mrs. Agatha Moller, a buyer for Hink's Department Store in Berkeley, was also on the train, returning from a New York business trip.

Initial investigation of the crash pointed to a rail that appeared to have been intentionally bent, and sabotage was suspected. (Several people would be detained on suspicion of sabotaging the train, and later released; the cause of the crash was never resolved.)

The elite train was westbound, from Chicago to Oakland, a trip that took some 40 hours. The cars were named for San Francisco geographical features and landmarks. "Presidio," "Mission Delores," "Embarcadero," "Twin Peaks," "Chinatown" and "Fisherman's Wharf" all went into the river. "Market Street" hurtled the trestle and landed on its side.

Also on Aug. 12, two trains collided on the outskirts of Denver, killing a conductor and injuring 35 passengers. News accounts said it was possible one engineer misunderstood tower signals and ran into the other train.

Closer to home, a "terrific head on automobile crash" injured five people on the Bay Bridge on the morning of Aug. 12. Four people were injured in one car, driven by the District Attorney of Amador County. They were all taken to Berkeley General Hospital. As Highway Patrol officers were cleaning up the accident they cited a Berkeley driver for reckless driving after he crossed the centerline and sideswiped another car.

New Councilman

The Berkeley City Council once again changed through insider "selection," Aug. 15, 1939, when the vacancy left by Frank Gaines, who had been elected mayor, was filled by the appointment of Donald H. Parce, described as a "civic leader and local businessman." Parce owned the Troy-Manhattan Launderers and Cleaners, and lived on Woolsey Street.