Tracking down the details of a tragic steam engine accident in Wisconsin
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.
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.
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?
On my next opportunity, I drove to Elkhorn, Wisconsin, the Walworth County seat, and went straight to the County Court House. I soon located the death records index and found 1904. I thought the accident most likely to have been summer or fall when steamers in this area saw the most action, so I started there.
There it was, J. Gilbert Vaughn, died August 20, 1904! This index told me to refer to Vol. 8, page 172 for additional details, which I did promptly. There it listed occupation as farmer and age at death as 27 years. Cause of death, “Primary: injured in boiler explosion; Secondary: gangrene, duration of disease, 6 days.”
Now, armed with this new information I made a beeline for the Elkhorn Public Library and inquired within regarding the availability of newspapers printed locally in 1904. I was told that some years ago the State Historical Society had microfilmed all of the old issues of the one and only local paper, The Elkhorn Independent.
Now, I’d already learned at the court house that he had died August 20, and that the duration of the disease had been six days, so I had a place to start. The Elkhorn Independent was a weekly paper and had been published every Thursday there, on the front page for August 18, 1904, was the following story entitled “Miraculous Escape.”
One of the worst accidents that ever happened in this community occurred one-half mile north of this village Monday afternoon. Gilbert Vaughn, with the help of Albert Raatz, his hired man, was taking a traction engine to Burlington to be repaired. Cold water coming in contact with an overheated boiler, being run at a low water mark, was the cause of the explosion, which was terrific. The whole engine was thrown twenty-five feet while one drive wheel was found fifty feet away, and castings, oil cups, etc., were found 200 feet or more from where the explosion occurred.
Mr. Vaughn was thrown fifteen feet in the air, his left leg being broken below the knee so that the bones protruded through the flesh, and one arm was badly scalded. Albert Raatz, the hired man, was standing in front of the tank wagon and was blown completely over it, his limbs, arms, face and parts of his body being badly scalded.
Dr. Hicks of Burlington is in attendance and hopes to pull the victims through without serious results.
Now, being this story said “Miraculous Escape,” I had to search a bit further, and there on the front page of the next week’s paper, August 25, was the second story entitled “Accident Was Fatal,” reporting that J. Gilbert Vaughn had died of injuries received in the boiler explosion.
Thus, the accident occurred on Monday afternoon, August 15, 1904. He died Saturday at 7:00 p.m. on August 20, and my Aunt Cecile was born Sunday, early in the morning of August 21, and the father that she never knew was buried Monday, August 22, 1904.
I then searched through subsequent issues of the Independent, hoping to learn something about the fate of A. Raatz, the hired man who was also injured in the explosion, but found nothing. Maybe he survived, which would not have been worthy of yet another story.
I had hoped there might exist, somewhere, a picture of the accident, or maybe somewhere I might learn the “make” of the engine, but so far, I’ve been unable to turn up anything further. I am now quite sure that I will never be able to find out any more about this tragic accident that occurred almost 90 years ago.
In one of the same issues of the Elkhorn Independent, I also located a story about a man who lost his foot in the cylinder of threshing machine after he slipped on the platform. If nothing else, I hope these stories will be a reminder to everyone to be extremely careful when working around these potentially dangerous and sometimes deadly pieces of equipment.
It is important for us to relive “what once was,” and to keep our important agricultural heritage alive. However, we must learn from the mistakes and carelessness of those gone before, so as not to relive their mistakes and tragic accidents. IMACharles R. Sindelar is from Waukesha, Wisconsin.