Cheating Death in 1902 (18-18)


I don’t usually caption my headers, but this is actually the tunnel where Debs crashed.

The Eugene V. Debs saga very nearly came to an end on August 2, 1902, when he was involved in a serious train crash in the middle of Alpine Tunnel, then the highest railway tunnel in North America, located 11,523 feet above sea level in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains.

Since he provided an excellent account for readers of the Social Democratic Herald, we’ll just let EVD tell the story:

We were on a mixed train, all coal and other freight except one combination day coach and baggage, in which we rode. There were five passengers, two women and two men besides myself. We had four engines on the train to climb the steep mountain grade, two at head of train and two at rear, just ahead of our car. The road is rickety and the rolling stock rundown and it is criminal to rush that kind of a train through that kind of a hole. The continental divide is in the center of the tunnel and with two engines at each end the train is very apt to break in two and the tunnel is so dark that the engineer can’t see a foot ahead of him after the first engines have filled it with smoke….

Well, we entered the tunnel going east at 1 p.m. Saturday, the 2nd, and just after we passed the red light in the center that marks the continental divide and were rushing down the other side our train broke into three pieces and our engine and car crashed into the engine ahead of us. The shock was terrific and as the only dingy lamp in the car went out, we were left in blackest darkness. The scream of a woman, an unearthly shriek, pierced me to the marrow. Our car was derailed, seats smashed, baggage piled around us, engines off the track and jammed into each other. I picked myself together and felt that I wasn’t seriously injured, although I found later that my leg was bruised and my back wrenched, from which I am still suffering acute pains.

matchI had some matches in my pocket and in the flickering light of these we concluded that we must get out of the tunnel without delay. With the four engines in the tunnel, pouring out their dense volumes of smoke and gas, we began to suffocate and the horrible thought came to use that we might be strangled to death before we could grope our way through the tunnel. At the same spot in the same tunnel five men were suffocated to death in a previous wreck, they being unable to withstand the fumes of the gas, perishing there before help could reach them.

For a few minutes I saw my doom, and the feeling began to settle over me that this black hole in the mountain peak was to be my tomb. I now understand how the unfortunate miner feels when he finds escape cut off and realizes himself buried alive. But we acted quickly and concluded to start for the other end of the tunnel.

There were some deep holes between the ties, and the walking and stumbling in the pitchy darkness was a trial not soon to be forgotten. I took one of the women by the arm and our procession started, and after a weary march the first ray of light greeted us around the curve and it had all the glory of the primal fiat, “Let there be light!” I shall never forget it. It was our good fortune that a stray current of wind was blowing in at the east end of the tunnel, or we would probably never have emerged from it alive. (Source: SD Herald, Aug. 16, 1902, pg. 1.)

Despite the disaster and a hike back over the top of the tunnel, Debs was still able to reach Buena Vista, Colorado by 7 pm and kept his appointed speaking date there. It was certainly an appearance above and beyond the call of duty.

•          •          •          •          •

Touring in 1902.


Portrait of Debs used in conjunction with a syndicated article in 1903.

The coverage of Debs’s 1902 speaking tour in the newspapers currently digitized by is very spotty. My list of his known dates is short and entirely unsatisfactory. He started the year with a short tour of Michigan, traveled to St. Louis for May Day, and attended the joint convention of the Western Federation of Miners, the Western Labor Union, and the Hotel and Restaurant Employee’s Union from the end  of May through the first week of June, delivering both a keynote address and a speech to a mass meeting after the conclusion.

He was touring the West from the middle of June, speaking in British Columbia and Washington in July. Additional rough detail is provided by a January 1903 article written for the Social Democratic Herald, in which Debs recounted both his booking agency and  states visited:

Since my engagement with the American Lyceum Union I have been in Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, Missouri, Colorado, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. *  *  *

Since the beginning of the lecture season I have spoken in colleges, high schools, and churches, though in most places the lecture is given at the opera house, under a variety of auspices, including women’s clubs, YMCAs, college courses, school societies, church associations, debating clubs, etc.

But twice have I spoken under socialist auspices during this time and but 3 or 4 times to less than a full house. As the lecture is given in the season course at almost every point and the ticket for the season is sold in advance, a full house, rain or shine, is the rule.

The people everywhere are not only ready for the gospel of socialism, but receive it with every mark of enthusiasm, and the telling points in a speaker’s argument are applauded just as heartily in a church or school room as they are in a socialist propaganda meeting.

In summary, Debs was a much more active public speaker in 1902 than he had been in 1901, with activity skewed towards the second half of the year and targeted to the West, not the East.

•          •          •          •          •

The twisted publishing legacy of the Social Democratic Herald.

There is some confusion about the publication history of the Social Democratic Herald, official organ of the Chicago Social Democratic Party which had been packed away to Milwaukee after the August 1901 Joint Unity Convention to become the crown jewel in Victor L. Berger’s socialist publishing empire. It was for some time believed that the publication had suddenly “suspended publication” from April 6 through August 8, before being resuscitated by Berger in Milwaukee.

This alleged gap in the publication’s history is wrong.

The source of the confusion was apparently a large gap in the holdings of the University of Wisconsin, whose librarian B. Wilcox appended a mistaken typewritten note on Dec. 5, 1945, to the paper being filmed explaining that there was a lengthy period of hiatus.

Subsequently another university was able to produce (very, very bad) film demonstrating that there were indeed previously unknown issues for almost that entire interval. There was a gap during the move from Chicago to Milwaukee, but it only appears to have been a void of two weeks’ duration. Here is the SDH publishing history, for the record…

  1. The Social Democracy of America split on June 10/11, 1898. Their official organ, The Social Democrat, remained in the hands the colonization wing, but was soon suspended for lack of funds. The political action wing was forced to start their own paper, which was Social Democratic Herald.
  2. The first issue of Social Democratic Herald was dated July 9, 1898. Alfred Shenstone Edwards was the editor and remained so for the entire time the publication was produced in Illinois.
  3. The paper was briefly moved from Chicago to Belleview, IL as an economy measure. Belleview is located inSouthwestern Illinois just outside of St. Louis, nearly 300 miles from Chicago. The savings do not seem to have been sufficient ot offset the inconvenience and the paper was fairly promptly moved back to Chicago.
  4. The final Chicago issue was dated July 27, 1901 and assigned whole no. 160.
  5. There was no paper issued on the scheduled August 3 and August 10, 1901 release dates. During this interval the operation was moved to Milwaukee, with Berger taking over the publication.
  6. The first Milwaukee issue was dated Aug. 17, 1901, and erroneously assigned whole no. 159 on the front page nameplate — a mistake that does not seem to have been ever corrected. Editors listed on the masthead were Victor L. Berger and A.S. Edwards.
  7. Edwards’ name was removed from the masthead effective with the issue of April 12, 1902, although he continued to contribute material to the paper periodically, so the split must have been amicable. Perhaps Edwards was trying to commute from Chicago to Milwaukee or did not like the latter city as well. He was replaced as co-editor by Frederic Heath, a pioneer historian of socialism in America, recording secretary of the Milwaukee Federated Trades Council, and protégé of Victor Berger. Under Heath’s editorship the paper very much became an organ of the Social Democratic Party of Wisconsin, with weak coverage of national affairs.
  8. Berger removed his name from the masthead effective with the issue of May 10, 1902, although his front page editorials remained a distinctive part of the publication for its entire duration.
  9. The weekly Social Democratic Herald was supplanted by the daily Milwaukee Leader, which launched on Dec. 7, 1911.
  10. The Leader would continue for years after Berger’s death after being hit by a streetcar in 1929.



The deadline for Eugene V. Debs Selected Works: Volume 3 is October 15, 2018. I’m setting a soft deadline of August 1 to finish the document compilation phase of the project. This means there are now 8 more Saturdays after today to get the core content section of the book assembled, with a limit for publication of approximately 260,000 words.

  • “The Socialistic Movement in America” — April 26, 1902 — 2,237 words
  • “The Pennsylvania Coal Strike is On” — May 19, 1902 — 820 words
  • “Socialism on Every Tongue: Open Letter to the Social Democratic Herald” — June 6, 1902 — 234 words
  • “A Great Western Movement is Coming: Open Letter to the Social Democratic Herald” — June 17, 1902 — 202 words
  • “The Inevitable War of the Classes” — June 21, 1902 — 1,227 words
  • “Politics — Democratic and Republican: Interview with the Spokane Spokesman-Review” — July 3, 1902 — 1,137 words
  • “The National Platform Explained” — July 18, 1902 — 712 words
  • “ A Narrow Escape: Letter to the Social Democratic Herald” — Aug. 8, 1902 — 819 words
  • “Trade Unionism Up-to-Date” — Aug. 23, 1902 — 867 words
  • “Jesse Cox: An Appreciation” — Sept. 15, 1902 — 657 words
  • “Auguries for the New Year” — Jan. 3, 1903 — 1,065 words
  • “Socialism the Trend of the Times” — Jan. 30, 1903 — 256 words
  • Socialism and Civilization: Speech at Rochester, NY” [excerpt] — Feb. 8, 1903 — 1,493 words

Word count: 195,364 in the can + 11,754 this week = 207,118 words total.


All this and more is ready to download at Marxists Internet Archive!



Hot damn, we have a release date for Volume 1: January 1, 2019.

Now I just need to get that proofreading finished up.

(BTW: It is six volumes, not five…)


About carrite

Independent scholar from Corvallis, Oregon with a strong interest in early 20th century political history.
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