Tragedy at Paisano Pass
Sanderson loses a good citizen
The Sanderson community has lost many good men to accidents on the railroad, most recently the four railroad men who lost their lives
in the 1994 head-on collision of two freight trains west of town. But the history of the community is rife with incidents of
those who were severely injured or lost their lives in this very dangerous profession.
On July 8, 1921, the town was stunned
to learn that prominent railroad engineer and entrepreneur William Francis Bohlman had lost his life when his engine exploded
at Paisano Pass in western Brewster County, just a scant one hundred miles from home. The community not only lost a railroad
man and family man, but an ardent supporter of business in Terrell County and the architect and builder of the elegant Bohlman Building,
built just three years before.
Bohlman and his wife Mary Burns Bohlman and baby Mary Ellen transferred to Sanderson in 1909 where
he took a position as engineer on the Southern Pacific Lines. His run was from Sanderson to the next division point, Valentine,
Texas, and he drove a freight locomotive, a "Mikado"-style 2-8-2 (2 smaller lead wheels, 8 large driving wheels, 2 small trailing
wheels) especially suited to the mountainous terrain of this division.
Sister engine #743 to Bohlman's #745
Bohlman Building, ca 1918
The Bohlmans were public spirited and devoted promoters of business in Sanderson. They ran a confectionary (candy shop) and
motion picture next to the Farley General Store on the corner where the Bohlman Building now stands at Oak and Persimmon. Bohlman
was a charter member of the first Terrell County Chamber of Commerce in 1920. While in Sanderson they had three more children,
all boys, but sadly, two passed away in early childhood.
In 1917 the Bohlman's business, along with Farley's Store and several
other businesses were wiped out by fire. The Bohlmans purchased the property and built the imposing Bohlman Building on the
corner, in which they ran their new confectionary and picture show downstairs and the St. Francis Hotel upstairs. In those days
they would push the seats back in the theatre and have public dances in that space, so the building was a popular gathering place
for the citizens of the community.
Life was idyllic in Sanderson and they easily could have lived there the rest of their lives,
but fate intervened. On July 8, 1921, Bohlman and his fireman, Charles F. Robinson, were on their regular run to Valentine.
When they reached Paisano Pass, the highest point on the SP New Orleans-San Francisco route at 5,074.1 feet elevation, the engines
of that day (and today!) labored to make the summit. At about 5:00 A.M. on that day, Engineer Bohlman pulled his engine #745 to a
stop just past the summmit. The records are not clear about what happened next but the engine exploded with such force that each of
the driving wheels indented the rail where they stood, sending the boiler and cab high into the air, clear of the engine chassis but
not derailing any wheel or car. The tender and the rest of the train were left unscathed. The boiler and cab landed clear of
the roadbed and Bohlman's body was found some 60 feet from the wreckage. Apparently he stayed with the engine to try to bring
the situation under control while Robinson ran for his life. He was found 3 miles to the east, wandering in a state of confusion.
The engine itself was loaded onto flatcars and hauled to the engine shop in El Paso where it was rebuilt and returned to service.
Maintenance crews erected a cross on the spot where Bohlman's body was found, and it was clearly visible from the highway for many
In spite of the tragedy, and loving her life in Sanderson, Mrs. Bohlman and her two small children remained, where the children finished
high school and went off to college. In 1941 Mrs. Bohlman sold her business interests and moved to be closer to her children.
Injured in an auto accident in the early '50s, she never fully recovered and passed away in 1958.
W.F. and Mary Bohlman exemplify
the entrepreneurial spirit that built Sanderson. They believed in the future of Sanderson and were willing to put down roots
here and help the town grow. In spite of the greatest of tragedies in losing her children and spouse, Mary Bohlman was willing
to stay and make a life here. Such was the spirit of many of our early day residents, and of many today who want to make Sanderson
a viable environment for home and business.
Chassis of #745 after the explosion, still attached to the train.
Demolished cab of #745, some distance from the site of the explosion.
Boiler of #745 after the explosion.
Boiler of #745 after the explosion. Notice the dents in the rails where the explosion occurred. Also note the size
of the engine compared to the men, and forces necessary to carry it that far from the explosion site.
The mystery of #745
~ Further investigation turns up a sinister side to the W.F. Bohlman story. NEW
All text and photos on this site copyright Terrell County Memorial Museum, 2010-2011, except where attribution is given.