The Burlington Northern Railroad line through Perham has been an economic lifeline for the community ever since it was finished in 1871. In fact the City of Perham is named after Josiah Perham the man largely responsible for the project that brought the railroad to town.
Thousands and thousands of trains have gone through Perham in those 100 plus years. Typically, they come and go, with little notice other than tying up traffic at crossings. But on at least three occasions, they haven’t made it through town because wrecks have occurred. One was in the early 40’s and another occurred in 1947 when two trains hit head-on in a snowstorm. The train wreck of Oct. 1st, 1992 was undoubtedly the most spectacular, though.
An eastbound Burlington freighter was just approaching the edge of town when a semi apparently fell off one of the cars. As it fell, it either struck a switch or got wedged under the train, causing a derailment to begin near the Holiday Station (400 block west). Car after car derailed from the train, which was doing about 60 miles per hour at the time.
As they derailed, they slid and tumbled toward the heart of the downtown area (east of 300 block west), threatening businesses such as Crane Johnson Lumber, the Perham City Offices, Strom’s Cafe, Ma’s Little Red Barn, Coast to Coast, Ace Hardware and others.
Fortunately, one of the cars hit the loading dock at the old Burlington Northern depot, and came to a halt. It acted as a stopper for the rest of the cars, so instead of sliding, they began piling up. When the train finally stopped, most of the 31 derailed cars were in a huge mound stretching westward about a block from the Depot.
Other than the BN depot building, which was wrecked the only other structural damage was to a loading shed. Some adjacent vehicles were damaged or wrecked, one squished down to about two feet thick. One of the most incredible aspects of the accident is that there were no major injuries, despite the fact that it occurred about 5:30 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon.
There were a number of eyewitnesses to the event, a couple got pinged by flying rocks or shards from railroad ties, but no serious injuries. The town was lucky from another regard, because the train also had at least two cars with hazardous materials, one loaded with molten sulfur and another with propane.
They were both behind the 31 cars that derailed and weren’t a factor in the wreck. Cleanup crews hustled to Perham to get the mess cleaned up as quickly as possible, and to get the BN line open again. The westbound lane was re-opened 37 hours later, and the eastbound lane 8 hours after that.
The text for this article came in part from information submitted Chuck Johnson to the East Otter Tail County History, Volume II, published in 1994 and now available on-line at www.historymuseumeot.com
-Lina Belar is the founder and retired director of the Friends of the History Museum of East Otter Tail County.