Looking back: The Cantara Loop derailment – but not that one

Skye Kinkade
Mount Shasta Herald
This photo, from the April 14, 1976 Dunsmuir News archives, was titled, "Tangle of Steel." "This was the scene after three flat cars containing four vans plunged into the Sacramento River after nine cars jumped the tracks on the Cantara bridge north of Dunsmuir. Guard rails were torn down as the piggybacks plummeted from the tracks, SP salvage workers can be seen in the water and faintly visible on the far side of the river are nets which were placed to catch debris."

Ask older Siskiyou County residents what comes to mind when you say "Cantara Loop," and many will recall the notorious Cantara Loop Spill of 1991, when a train accident led to the spillage of thousands of gallons of herbicide into the Sacramento River near Dunsmuir. (This editor says 'older' reluctantly, however, she's 40 and she remembers this catastrophe.)

But 15 years before, there was another train derailment near the same spot – although the environmental consequences weren't as devastating.

From our archives is this story, reprinted from the April 14, 1976 edition of The Dunsmuir News.

SP derailment causes twelve hour traffic snafu

Nine cars from a 71 car Southern Pacific general merchandise main line derailed last Saturday evening blocking the line for more than twelve hours.

The box cars and seven piggy-back van cars left the rails at 8:25 p.m. Saturday while crossing a bridge spanning the Sacramento River near Cantara Loop. 

This photo, from the April 14, 1976 Dunsmuir News archives, was titled, "Cleanup." "Southern Pacific officials and workers ponder the mass of debris which was pulled from the river following last Sunday's derailment. Four vans containing miscellaneous merchandise fell into the water and salvage operations were expected to continue through the week. Crews from Klamath Falls, Eugene and Dunsmuir were called in to help with the cleanup."

Three flatcars with four vans landed in the river. 

According to SP public relation official George Krause, the derailment was caused by what is called a “string line.”

“Imagine holding the ends of a piece of string in your hands so that it drops to form a loop,” Krause told the News from his Portland office. “Then you pull the string taut to form a straight line. That is what happened to the train. It straightened out but the track didn’t.”

“It’s something we can’t quite explain,” he said.

The accident occurred on an 18 mile section of switch-back track which allows trains to gain 1,000 feet in elevation over a nine-mile distance between Dunsmuir and Mount Shasta. 

More:Looking Back: A history of Mount Shasta's hospitals

The four vans which went in the river contained a general mixture of merchandise such as steel, medical supplies, pharmaceuticals, detergents and automobiles.

As salvage operations were taking place over the weekend, some of the packages of detergents and containers of a toilet bowl freshener dumped into the river causing bubbles to form and the river to turn blue. 

These items were biodegradable, according to Krause, and should cause no harm to the water.

Krause also said that the representatives of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Fish and Game were on hand an that as far as he know, they found no problems due to the accident.

However, Paul Wertz, information officer for the Department of Fish and Game, told the News Tuesday morning that DFG had found over 80 dead trout in a preliminary search of a mile an a half section of the river directly below where the accident occurred.

“We know that the cars which landed in the river contained alkaline substances and ammoniated compounds which are both toxic to fish,” Wertz said.

“The problem,” he said, “is not knowing how much of the substances got into the water.”

DFG water control people are taking water samples and will test them for toxics.

“We are not prepared to make a statement in regard to any repercussions at this time,” Wertz said. 

As of Monday two vans had been drawn from the river and two remained in the water. Krause said salvage should be completed by the end of the week or early next week.

There were no injuries caused by the derailment and there is no cost estimate available. 

SP crews from Dunsmuir and Klamath Falls were called in to clear tracks and the line was opened at 8:10 a.m. Saturday.

Skye Kinkade is the editor of the Mt. Shasta Area Newspapers and the Siskiyou Daily News. She is a fourth generation Siskiyou County resident and has lived in Mount Shasta and Weed her entire life.