Boiler Explosion of 1904

Tracking down the details of a tragic steam engine accident in Wisconsin


| November/December 1991



Several years ago I heard my mother’s brother, Walt, tell a story of a boiler explosion some 80 odd years ago that had killed his brother Art’s father-in-law. I wanted to know more, and asked a thousand questions.

Family details of the steam engine explosion

It had happened a long time ago, even before Uncle Walt was born, but he did remember that his sister-in-law, Cecile, had never known her father, as he had been killed before she was born. I wanted to know more details, but was forced to put this on the back burner and attend to more pressing matters. I never completely forgot about it, and every chance I got I asked more questions, and gleaned a few tidbits of information whenever I could.

I was able to find out the victim’s name, Gilbert Vaughn, and I knew that the accident had occurred near the crossroads hamlet of Spring Prairie, Wisconsin, and that he was buried near there in the small, rural, Hickory Grove Cemetery. I already knew of the cemetery, as I had been one of the pall bearers for Aunt Cecile when she was laid to rest there some years ago.

I had a hunch that an accident of this nature would have been very important at the time, and that it likely would have made the local paper if there was one nearby.

But, before I started to search through newspapers, I had to know a more precise date of the accident.

Hickory Grove Cemetery in Spring Prairie, Wisconsin

One bitter cold day last winter, I headed over to Spring Prairie and located the Hickory Grove Cemetery, and located the headstone. That was of little help, as all it listed was the year 1904! Nearby I also located the stone for my Aunt Cecile and there, on it, was her date of birth, also 1904, so just maybe there was some truth to the old story after all.

I then stopped at several nearby farmsteads asking for information as to who in the area might have the old cemetery records. I got bounced around a bit from here to there, but finally learned that it was a Don Frederick who was the keeper of the old records. He was not at home, so I returned home and called him later that night.

Yes, he did have all the old records, and he was most helpful. He did his best, but the records for the whole group of years from 1878 through 1932 were missing. He had everything before 1878, and everything after 1932, but not what I needed. Was this another dead end?