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1894 train robbery turned tragic accident in the Northwoods

Train wreck of Soo Line
Wisconsin Historical Society
Train wreck of Soo Line

On Sunday, October 7, 1894, the eastbound Soo Line Passenger train passed safely over a 20-foot-long trestle north of Tomahawk between Heafford Junction and Bradley and continued to its destination. One hour and forty minutes later, the Soo Line Limited Westbound No. 7 approached the same trestle at 30 miles per hour. This time it buckled.

There had been no sign of danger, and the collapse caught the crew completely off guard. Because the train was moving at a relatively slow speed, the wreck was not as terrible as it could have been. As the trestle collapsed, the locomotive toppled over and went crashing down the 25-foot embankment. The train consisted of a baggage car, smoking car, day coaches, and two sleeper cars. Those also tumbled over and slid down the embankment.

As the locomotive went over, Engineer James Dutch was thrown about twenty feet. His leg and nose were broken, and his face badly cut, but he had no other serious injuries. Fireman Charles Cottrell was not so fortunate. Cottrell was caught beneath the falling locomotive and crushed to death. Amazingly, there were no other casualties or critical injuries. The passengers and crew behind the locomotive were bruised and battered by the fall, but otherwise unhurt.

The alarm was raised in Heafford, and a special train was sent out from Pennington carrying a doctor and a railroad detective. By the time the detective arrived, the surviving train crew had already discovered what had happened. Someone had taken a saw and cut through the timber stringers and braces supporting the railroad ties. With those cut, the only thing holding up the entire trestle were the rails themselves, and that could not support the weight of a train.

Residents across the Northwoods were outraged. This was no prank. Who could knowingly set a death trap for so many people and why? Someone had made a similar but unsuccessful attempt on September 30 at Prentice, so detectives felt the guilty parties might still be lurking around.

On October 4, three men were arrested in Rhinelander and charged with the September 30 incident. The allegation against them was that they had a coat stolen from a railroad handcar and other purloined goods. It was flimsy evidence and ultimately incorrect. On October 6, Levitt Hazelton of Brainard, Minnesota, and Frank Williams, alias Paflinski, were in Rhinelander purchasing supplies. The next day is when the timber stringers were cut.

On October 11, Sheriff Patzer received a telegram from a Soo Line station agent informing him of two suspicious-looking characters skulking around the area. That night, the sheriff followed the tip and captured the two heavily armed men. They were jailed on concealed weapons charges while the case could be investigated.

Soo detectives retraced the two men’s steps, and by October 26 with evidence mounting Hazelton confessed. Their plan had been to cause a high-speed wreck where everyone would die. With no witnesses, they would then rob the safe in the express car. When survivors emerged from the wreck, they fled south toward Merrill.

Hazelton and Williams were convicted of murder and sentenced to the state penitentiary.

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In addition to being a historian and educator, Gary R. Entz serves on WXPR's Board of Directors and writes WXPR's A Northwoods Moment in History which is heard Wednesdays on WXPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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