Wednesday, April 02, 2008

The Great Elm Grove Train Wreck

"April is the cruelest month," said Eliot. While "breeding lilacs out of the dead land" may not seem to be such a bad thing, one must remember that April also has bred some sad memories: the beginning of the U.S. War Between the States; the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.; the death of Franklin Roosevelt.

One April day in particular merits, for good and ill, special commemoration. April 19 is the anniversary of the battles of Lexington and Concord (1775), the Waco massacre of 1993, the terrorist attack on Oklahoma City, and one lesser-known event -- the Great Elm Grove Train Wreck of 1958. That last event probably did not get the national attention of the others, but it was certainly vivid to those who lived nearby.

This April 19 will mark 50 years since a train slammed into the train depot in Elm Grove, Wisconsin, with more than two dozen cars jumping the tracks. Fortunately, because it was early on a Saturday morning, nobody was killed or injured. The depot building, however, was destroyed and a sleepy village in suburban Milwaukee was shaken up.

The Waukesha Freeman, the nearest local newspaper, was on the scene and reported the events of that morning in its afternoon edition:

Thirty cars of an eastbound Milwaukee Road freight train jumped the tracks in the village this morning, demolishing the depot and damaging two other buildings.

Two freight cars plowed into the small depot, moving it 30 feet off the foundation and leaving only the roof intact. The station agent, Tom Tracy, 33, was at his rooming house in Elm Grove. He does not work on Saturdays.

Another car shattered a 20 foot section of the nearby Reinders Bros. feed store and a tiny shed. Another 40 foot section of the feed store company's storage room was damaged.

J.A. Jakubec, Milwaukee general superintendent for the railroad, said a hot journal box on one of the freight cars probably caused the accident. When the journal box becomes overheated, the weight of the car collapses on the wheels.

The derailed cars contained canned peas and corn, paper, packaged flour, lumber, plywood and pulpwood.

A rumor that one of the boxcars was loaded with poison was untrue, Jakubec said.

He predicted that the main line won't be open until tomorrow morning. In the meantime westbound trains are being rerouted by way of Horicon to Portage, and eastbound cars from Portage to Madison to Milwaukee.

Elm Grove Police Chief Harold Graf said he was sitting in his office on Legion Dr. and Juneau blvd. at 6:30am when he heard a "terrific rumble." He knew immediately it was a train, looked up and all he could see was dust, he said. "It all took place in a minute and a half." Graf said. Telephone lines and electric lines were down and the railroad depot was demolished."

One of the freight cars came to rest about 12 feet from the corner of Felden's Tavern just northeast of the crossing. About $300 worth of liquor fell off the shelves and was damaged or destroyed. Phil Felden, who was asleep in the living quarters of the tavern, said, "It sounded like a tornado going through. It rumbled for about five minutes. It jarred us out of bed." Mrs. Felden said it was good fortune that the accident happened when it did. Her four small children ordinarily play outside the tavern in the area where the boxcar came to rest.
Along with hundreds of other gawkers, my grandfather, Chester J. Michalak -- one of the early suburban pioneers of nearby Brookfield -- was drawn to the scene. Unlike most of the others, however, he had his 16mm home-movie camera with him. I believe the three-and-a-half minutes of film footage he recorded may be the only extant moving-picture record of the Great Elm Grove Train Wreck of 1958. (It would be interesting to see if any of the Milwaukee TV stations have similar recordings in their archives but, knowing what we do about the preservation practices of TV stations and networks of that era, the existence of such records is doubtful.)

Here is what I found in a video transfer of my grandfather's film:

Local artist Gil Reid, who years later created a watercolor portrait of the destroyed Elm Grove railroad station, put his own memories of that day on video in 2006:

I suspect that, in about two weeks, the people of Elm Grove and Brookfield and surrounding neighborhoods will be commemorating this event. I hope this rare video will help them in resurrecting the images of that day half a century ago.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

i was there...coulda been one of the kids--they look about 10 yo--seen early on in the film. but not with crayon in hand as i probably went back home, just over the county line, to draw from memory.