Disaster struck on the Great Northern Railway line on the southern edge of what would become Glacier National Park.
The air brakes leaked on an eastbound freight train near Essex, and 28 cars detached from the engine. They rolled backward through the night — 17 miles down a steep grade, reaching an estimated 75-100 mph, before smashing into the rear of a passenger train, which was just pulling out of the Nyack station, 10 miles southeast of Belton.
The collision and resulting fire killed 41. Most of the victims were Scandinavian railroad laborers en route from Minnesota to Jennings, near Libby.
P.I. Downs, who had just been named assistant general superintendent of the GN’s Spokane Falls and Northern line, was riding in the last car with his son, Kirk, and a cook. They were killed instantly.
The freight cars were carrying shingles which burst into flame in the wreckage, incinerating many of the trapped railroad workers and lighting up the night. Heroic rescuers dragged 13 men from the burning day coach, but 30 others were cremated. Only five of the injured survived.
“Several men called aloud for help, asking that if they could not be got out they might be shot rather than suffer the agony of death from flames, which were getting nearer to them every second,” a press report said. “People were compelled by the intense heat to stand aside and see them burned alive.”