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The Head-On Collision At Cobden

June 17, 2009

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

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Ron permalink
    June 21, 2009 1:30 am

    Really nice articles and pix. They are simply riveting. You have a real talent for writing, and your historical presentation is just so easy to read. Catch you along the rails.
    Ron Hale
    Cape Girardeau

  2. Michael Petrea permalink
    August 21, 2010 8:39 pm

    Brakeman Ronald Haack did not die at the hospital. He is still alive.

  3. Elaine (Nance) Ross permalink
    August 8, 2011 12:55 pm

    I remember this very well. I live in Makanda and everyone around went to see the wreckage right after it happened. Our apartment was right across from the coal car where they found the body of the man in Makanda.

  4. August 26, 2011 6:19 pm

    I would be interested in any other pictures of the wreck scene or clean up operation you may have. I have been curious about this wreck along with the one in Mcmanus, La. I remember seeing a picture of IC 3075 remains on a flatcar in Carbondale yard and could never learn more. I enjoy your style of writing. Thank you. Jim

  5. Becky Arning permalink
    November 11, 2011 10:59 pm

    As Richard Arning’s oldest daughter, I can tell you that all of your facts are not correct. Perhaps you should check your info before you write.

  6. Valerie permalink
    March 21, 2012 10:05 pm

    I would love to see more pictures if anyone has any. I grew up in Cobden and lived there all my life. My family told me about this accident and I would love to see more. Or even read more. Very good pics and a nice article.

    Thank You Valerie

  7. James L Potter permalink
    July 2, 2013 6:10 am

    At the RR Picture Archives site, under Illinois Central locos there is a picture of 3075 leading , followed by 3035 and an unknown GP40 that I would bet is 3070. The date of the photo is 12-1-73 the train is s/b through Memphis. The very next day this loco consist is involved in a head-on at Cobden n/b. Ironic Thanks for your time and consideration. James L Potter

  8. Anne Travelstead permalink
    June 28, 2016 3:26 pm

    Thank you so much history had just moved to So Il in 1771

  9. January 28, 2021 10:33 pm

    Yes, although badly injured in the train wreck, Ron Haack is alive and well, living in Belleville, IL. Years ago, when he dated my older sister, he and his parents lived in Mascoutah, IL. I haven’t personally spoken to Ron in over 50 years, but I did google him along with the words “train wreck” and was able to find information on him. I hope this helps.

  10. Bob permalink
    February 17, 2022 9:09 am

    Tragic story about the loss of life. Wonder if the locomotive information was backwards. Usually the GP 40s 3070, 3035 and3075 would be on the southbound pigtrain number 51. And the big 6 axle engines 6012,6002 and especially Big G E 5050 would be on a heavy coal train.

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