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ST. LOUIS • On Nov. 1, 1855, the Pacific Railroad’s first train to Jefferson City left downtown bearing 600 prominent citizens.

“Some uneasiness has been expressed as to the safety of the road,” the morning Missouri Republican newspaper noted. “But this, we are told, is uncalled for.”

The railroad was a powerful expression of the city’s aspirations. Led by U.S. Sen. Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, St. Louis promoted itself vigorously as the starting point for a transcontinental railroad. Incorporators named the railroad for their ocean objective.

Construction began in 1851. The line reached Kirkwood in 1853 and Jefferson City two years later. Its bridge over the Gasconade River, eight miles west of Hermann, wasn’t finished, but builders bolstered it with temporary trestle.

Thomas O’Sullivan, chief engineer, signed invitations for the guests on the first train. Among them was Henry Chouteau of the city’s founding family. Music and speechmaking preceded the departure at 9 a.m. of the locomotive “Missouri” and 14 cars from the Seventh Street station, south of today’s Busch Stadium. In Jefferson City, another big crowd awaited the celebratory banquet.

Rain fell harder as the train chugged westward. O’Sullivan pondered stopping to check the Gasconade bridge, but a gravel-hauling train had used it the day before. He was in the cab at 1:30 p.m. as the locomotive moved onto the first span at 12 mph.

The trestle shuddered and collapsed. The locomotive plunged 30 feet into mud, pulling with it all but one of the passenger cars in staccato collisions and shattering wood.

Among the 31 dead or dying were O’Sullivan and Chouteau. Seventy others were seriously hurt. A conductor ran to Hermann for help, but the storm disabled the telegraph. The first vague word of something bad at the Gasconade didn’t reach St. Louis until 8 p.m.

“Terrible Catastrophe!” shouted the headline of the next morning’s Missouri Democrat. Because another temporary trestle near Washington was washed out by rain-choked Boeuf Creek, steamboats ferried survivors and bodies to Washington. Their train didn’t reach St. Louis until late Nov. 3. The city halted business for funerals.

A Pacific train reached Jefferson City without fanfare four months later, but St. Louis’ dream was dashed.

Chicago interests opened a bridge across the Mississippi River at Rock Island, Ill., in April 1856. The Pacific didn’t reach Kansas City until after the Civil War.

In 1869, the Golden Spike in Utah completed the transcontinental railroad from San Francisco to Chicago.

The Pacific was renamed the Missouri Pacific in 1867 and, in 1982, rolled into the Union Pacific.

Seventeen years ago, a Union Pacific crew digging beneath today’s Gasconade bridge unearthed an old railroad wheel. It had been forged in 1854.

 

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Tim O'Neil is a reporter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Contact him at 314-340-8132 or toneil@post-dispatch.com