Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Superstitious train men banish number 13 after fatal accident

The number 13 has been considered unlucky for a long time. Rumor has it that the superstition has roots in early Christianity (the Last Supper had 13 guests) and also Norse mythology (a group of 12 Norse gods was attacked by Loki, the trickster god, resulting in the death of one of the group). A phobia of the number 13, triskadekaphobia, has led to (among other things) airlines omitting the 13th row on planes and high-rise buildings without a Floor 13.

Employees of the Mountain Division of the O.R. & N. Railroad in Eastern Oregon decided they, too, would be wise to eliminate the number from their repertoire after a tragic accident claimed the life of Conductor Charles F. Brown on Nov. 8, 1904.

The fatal order was received by Train No. 6 at Bingham Springs, northeast of Pendleton in the Blue Mountains, at 5:43 a.m. Conductor Brown initially refused to take the order, in his usual jovial manner, and asked the dispatcher in La Grande to change the number. After a few minutes of joking over the wires to dispatch, Conductor Brown signed the order and, in delivering a copy of it to Engineer Pete Theisen, said in fun, “That’s a bad one, Pete, look at the number and then look out.”

The train stopped at Kamela’s switching yard at 7:40 a.m. that morning to take on a dining car from a side track. Conductor Brown was run down by a helper engine on another side track while helping his engineer back up to pick up the car. Death was instantaneous. In his pocket was found the last train order he had received.

When the news of his death reached the dispatchers in La Grande, they decided then and there to never again issue Order No. 13 from their offices. Train orders issued from the dispatcher’s office began at No. 1 at midnight each day and ran consecutively until the next midnight, as many as 200 orders being issued in any 24-hour period. From then on, a blank space was left in the log book for Order No. 13, to the relief of many superstitious railroad men.

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