the night telegrapher’s shift at the Buda
train depot south of Austin, young Hamilton
Wright expected a quiet evening. In his experience, almost all nights passed that
way. But things were about to come to a head, so to speak. |
Around 11 p.m.
word clicked over the wire in so many dots and dashes that a freight train bound
from San Antonio to Austin
had derailed on a curve of track at the entrance of the Bear Creek railroad bridge
just south of the Capital City. Hamilton
had heard the north-bound train rumble through the small Hays County town only
a few minutes before the accident.
The engine and its tender had jumped
the track, which in turn caused the freight cars to plummet off the bridge into
the dry creek below. The engineer and fireman lay dead in the wreckage.
his post 8 miles south of the scene, Wright listened to the wire as the train
dispatcher in San Antonio ordered
a wrecker to proceed from Taylor,
the railroad’s division point, to the location of the derailment. In addition,
the telegraph directed, all section foremen needed to gather gandydancers – railroad
slang for track workers – to join the work train headed to the wreck site. The
foreman in Austin received instructions
to “gather everybody that would work” on Congress Avenue and hire them for the
duration of the emergency.
A wreck blocking the mainline between Austin
and San Antonio was bad enough,
but this derailment was even worse. Not only had there been casualties, the accident
had occurred at a point where temporary trackage could not be laid to divert passenger
trains and other freights. On top of that, Wright knew that the refrigerated cars
telescoped on each other held a liquid cargo capable of causing problems. While
not explosive or toxic, a trainload of beer could be problematic.
simply as “the beer train,” this particular run left the Alamo City every night
laden with newly bottled beer from the Pearl and Lone Star breweries. It also
carried a heavy cargo of beer in stout wooden barrels, all bound for the flourishing
saloons in the Capital City and points
northeastward along the line.
“Barrels rolled out and cases of bottled
beer tumbled here and there, some bottles breaking but other lying invitingly
to anyone near,” Wright later recalled.
Before long, word leaked out along
with some of the beer that free-for-the-taking containers of the best of the brewer’s
craft lay scattered around the yet unguarded train wreck.
While the railroad
desperately tried to recruit men willing to work hard and long for $1.25 a day,
others more than happy to expend a little effort in harvesting hops – well, the
liquid product derived from the grain -- saddled their horses or raced their buggies
to the wreck.
When the railroad work train reached the wreck at 2 a.m.,
railroadmen and the newly hired workers found a rescue party already on the scene,
“party” being the operative word. Numerous barrels had been rolled off and tapped,
revellers having a literal free (beer) for all, no peace officers having arrived
to spoil the fun.
And it soon got worse, at least from the railroad’s
perspective. Many of its newly hired gandydancers gave up their jobs on the spot,
figuring they could easily drink or steal for later consumption more than $1.25
worth of beer in less time than it would take to earn the same amount in cash.
As the crowd’s collective blood alcohol level began to rise with the decline in
the beer supply, fights started breaking out.
“In a few hours,” Wright
recalled, “the gulches and level places within a half mile of the wreck looked
like a Baccanalia outrivaling anything Rome ever attempted.”
drunks everywhere, some of them already sick from over-indulgence, some still
quaffing the “free” booze, and others sprawled on the ground battered and bloody
from fighting, anyone newly arrived to the scene must have thought a true human
disaster had occurred.
Finally, Travis County sheriff’s deputies, hastily
deputized area citizens and even Austin
police officers arrived. Twisting arms and swinging billy clubs, they began making
arrests and slowly restored order. By the time this second, figurative train wreck
had been cleaned up, some 200 men had been hauled off to the hoosescow.
Working around the clock, the railroad crews had the wreckage cleared and the
tracks reopened within 48 hours. While the beer could not be salvaged, those barrels
which remained intact were returned to the breweries for reuse. For decades after
the incident, Wright said, the area around the wreck site was covered with empty
or broken beer bottles.
Cox - August
25, 2011 column
Texas Railroads | Columns
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