The early morning hours of May 30, 1894, witnessed the biggest train wreck in Marshfield-area history.
The No. 4 evening train on the Wisconsin Central Road crashed just three miles north of Marshfield, at Mannville, at 1:15 a.m. The Southbound Limited was running from Minneapolis to Chicago. No one could have predicted what happened. The bolt that held the split in place was removed, leaving the switch open.
The crash officially was said to be the work of "wreckers," the name given those who deliberately cause derailments. The opinion was that the bolt could not have been out of place except for a criminal act, although some railroad men thought the nut could possibly have come off the fish bolt through the passage of trains. The truth never would be known.
The train was running at its usual speed between 50 and 60 miles per hour when it struck the open switch and headed off onto a short piece of track about 300 feet long, at the end of which it jumped the track and fell into a 4-foot-deep ditch, the front cars "telescoping."
As it entered the muddy ditch, the engine turned at least partially over, burying the engineer and firemen beneath the ruins. The pile of broken car timbers caught fire immediately.
The baggage and mail cars, the smoker, second day coach and two of the sleepers all left the track, and nearly all the cars, except one sleeper and a private car, were badly wrecked or burned.
At first there was such panic and chaos that it was hard to tell what had happened and how many were injured or dead, but when the train caught fire, everyone knew it was going to be bad.
None of the passengers in the sleepers were injured, but the 12 to 15 passengers in the smoking cars were. The train was carrying about 60 passengers.
Conductor Gavin, who was seated in the coach and was himself injured, broke a window and crawled through. With the help of passengers, including engineer William Buckley of Ashland, who was a passenger, Gavin uncoupled the rear sleeper and another coach. Had they not been successful, the loss would have been even greater.
In the end, everything was destroyed except those two cars, some mail and baggage.
Several doctors and nurses left Marshfield and Stevens Point as soon as word arrived, and the injured were tended and sent to Marshfield Hospital. The dead were taken by train to Stevens Point.
The Eau Claire Free Press Weekly reported that passenger Sydney Hirsch, a businessman from Ironwood, Mich., was in his sleeping berth when the train crashed. He was thrown from his berth when the train "went into a heap," according to his statement, and he and the others scrambled out as soon as they could. He felt it was a miracle they came out alive and unburned as the sleepers were pretty much filled with passengers.
There were no, axes, crowbars, buckets or any water to be found to fight the fire or help free those imprisoned in and under cars, so survivors could do nothing but work with their hands and then stand back and watch the flames consume most of the train and those still trapped.
The Stevens Point Daily Journal reported Engineer Hubbard and Fireman Gerhart were both alive when taken from beneath the train, but they died soon after. Neither regained consciousness, which was a blessing as both were severely injured and burned.
The body of Judd Bigelow, the brakeman, was found at about 9 a.m. and identified by his keys and watch. He still had a lantern on his arm. Other bodies could not be identified - even as to gender.
The dead were listed as: James Hubbard, engineer; George Gerhart, fireman; Judd Bigelow, brakeman; Mr. Russell, railroad civil engineer; W. Bozely, news agent, all of Stevens Point. Non-railroad deaths were Mrs. Wagner from Butternut, Mr. Tweedy from Marshfield and an unknown man.
At the end, the official body count was eight, and those injured seriously enough to require hospitalization was 15.
The little village of Mannville had been a sawmill town and lumber center but was nearly totally wiped out by fire the autumn before. After the fire, pretty much all that was left was the abandoned railway station that never called for switching as all trains went right through.
Called a "murderous act by demons," if truly not an accident, one only can hope the guilty were somehow were punished - if only by their consciences.