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Every Wednesday at 6:45 a.m., 8:45 a.m., and 5:45 p.m., we turn back the clock on WXPR with local historian Gary Entz to find out what life in the Northwoods used to be like. This is part of a new initiative by WXPR to tell the history and culture of northern Wisconsin.You can keep track of A Northwoods Moment in History and all of WXPR's local features on the WXPR Local Features podcast, wherever you get your podcasts.

The Prank That Nearly Derailed A Train

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Wisconsin Historical Society
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Teenagers playing pranks on the community is an issue that is as old as civilization itself. Every generation has had to deal with it in one way or another. But a prank is little more than a practical joke or a mischievous act. At what point does an innocent prank cross the line to become juvenile delinquency? An incident from Oneida County’s early history shows how easily the line can be crossed. Historian Gary Entz has the story.

Before the first morning light on August 10, 1936, a slow-moving Chicago & Northwestern freight train traveling north toward Rhinelander struck a railroad tie that was laying squarely across the rails of the main line. The heavy tie slipped under the cowcatcher and jammed underneath it. The crew was unaware that the train had struck an object and continued into town. When they arrived, they saw the trail of splinters on the tracks behind them and realized how lucky they had been. The Ashland Limited came in an hour behind them, and had that passenger train, which traveled between 50 and 60 miles per hour, stuck the tie, it most likely would have derailed. As it was, it took considerable time and effort to extract the tie from underneath the freight locomotive.

Later in the day, shortly after the afternoon Northwestern passenger train had gone through, a whistle post was found lying across the tracks at the same spot. Nels Junkher was leading a section crew behind the train to check against sparks. He spotted the obstruction and removed it before a train could hit it. He also spotted a local youth named Myron Schmitt hiding in a nearby bush.

Myron Schmitt was a seventeen-year-old boy from the town of Pelican. He lived with his mother and sisters, but his father was absent from his life. He was considered a good worker at home, but because his father was missing Myron had to take on most of the household chores and dropped out of school before completing the third grade. He was functionally illiterate.

County Sheriff John Farman went to the Schmitt household to question Myron and to take him to the site where the tie had been placed on the tracks. The teenager denied involvement, and the sheriff wanted to believe him because the new railroad ties waiting to be put into place were in fact very heavy. Then the sheriff turned to the boy and said, “I’ll bet a nickel a strong man like you could lift one of those.” At which point Schmitt grinned, picked up a tie by the middle, swung it around, and carried it right over to the rails. He won a nickel but lost his freedom.

Schmitt confessed all. According to his statement, Schmitt attended morning and afternoon church services in Rhinelander. In the evening he attended the Heart o’ the Lakes Association’s annual outdoor show and Northwoods exhibition. Walking back to his home in Pelican he came across the new ties lying alongside the track. On a lark he placed a tie over the track then went home to sleep. He likely just wanted to see it broken and tore down the whistle post the next day when he could not see any remains of the tie.
Schmitt was subsequently examined by Dr. I.E. Schiek, who declared him to be either feeble minded or insane. Schmitt was sentenced to the State Industrial School for boys at Waukesha. A railroad tragedy was avoided, but the tragedy of a young life gone bad was not.