The Head-On Collision At Cobden
Note: Two people have contacted me since this piece was originally written. Both claimed errors contained within the story, one in a comment below and another one who refused to return emails asking for clarification. I can only assume that they were both referring to people who printed reports at the time said were killed in the wreck; Richard Arning and Ronald Haack. There are listings for men with these names still living in southern Illinois today, and both ages listed would be about right.
This would hardly be the first time that a local newspaper got their facts wrong, and years later an erroneous report became part of a historical piece. However, lacking details from the previously mentioned people, the article as written remains.
Mary McPherson – 5/26/2014
One of the more popular places to film southbound trains on the former Illinois Central mainline through southern Illinois is on the curve at Cobden, Illinois. As trains near the top of the ruling grade through the area, they climb up a straight stretch before rounding the curve that passes below the Cobden school.
How many people who have shot photos at this location in recent years are unaware of the tragedy that unfolded at this very spot over thirty years ago? Time has eroded the scars from the land, but the terrible head-on collision lives on in memory.
Heavy rains the last week of November, 1973, caused a flash flood that washed out a culvert in Anna. The railroad was in the process of replacing the culvert with a trestle, resulting in the northbound main track being out of service while the work was completed. The railroad was a double track railroad, directionally signaled with automatic block signals. Track one, or the west track, was the southbound main. The eastern track, track two, was the northbound main. With the northbound main out of service, northbound trains were required to run “wrong main” to get through.
A double track ABS system such as this has signals for each track, but the signals face only one direction. If a train were to be required to run on the opposite track and against the current of traffic, or run “wrong main,” there are no signals to warn of another train or problem ahead. The train dispatcher issues orders for a train to cross over from one track to the other and run wrong main between two specific points. Orders would then be given to any train coming the other direction not to pass a certain point until meeting the train that had been running wrong main. Adherence to the dispatcher’s orders keeps everything running smoothly. A mistake can lead to disaster.
On the early morning of Sunday, December 2, 1973, Robert Taylor was at the throttle of a northbound coal train had been ordered to run wrong main around the bridge work. With him on the crew were Richard Arning and Ronald Haack and locomotives 3070, 3035 and 3075. On this foggy night, the crew of the coal train made a critical error and passed the crossover they were supposed to use to return to the northbound main south of Cobden. At the same time, engineer Donald E. Shdelbower and conductor D.B. Baltzell were approaching Cobden with piggyback train P-51 and locomotives 6012, 5050 and 6002.
P-51 was working up the grade from Makanda, and the hill would have slowed the train’s progress. Nobody will ever know for certain what they saw that night; the last signal they passed may have given them an approach indication (yellow) or even a clear (green). Had they been running on an approach signal they would have expected a stop signal at Cobden, and they would have probably expected to wait as the coal train crossed back over to the northbound main. The coal train, on the other hand, was running against the current of traffic and had no signals at all.
There would have been very little time for the crews to react. The northbound crew probably realized what was happening when they saw the hillside on the curve illuminated by the headlight of P-51. The crew of the piggyback train wouldn’t have known what was coming until they saw the coal train on the same track at the last moment.
The following photos were taken later that day.
The bodies of engineer Taylor and conductor Arning on the coal train were found in the lead engine soon after the wreck. Brakeman Haack survived the initial wreck and later died in a St. Louis hospital. The body of Engineer Shdelbower was found late the afternoon of the second.
The final body was not discovered until the following Wednesday. D.B. Baltzell had been in the cab of 6012 at the moment of the collision, but searchers were unable to locate his body in the wreckage. On Tuesday the wrecked locomotive was moved to Makanda and parked on a siding. It was there that his body was found, buried under coal and debris in the well the diesel engine had been mounted in. The prime mover had been dislodged in the wreck.
According to the news article, two cars on P-51 and ten cars of the coal train were involved in the pileup, as well as all six locomotives. All of the locomotives were subsequently rebuilt, and a few of them remain in service today. Damage was estimated to have topped the one-million-dollar mark.
No details came with the photos illustrating this article. However given the condition of the wreck, the time of day judging by the light, and the action going on, it is quite possible the following three photos were taken about the time the body of engineer Shdelbower was found.
The look on this man’s face says it all.
Wreck photos courtesy of Fran Holly – Other photos Mary McPherson
Copyright 2009 – Mary Rae McPherson