The Unsolved Mystery of a Rhinelander Robbery

Apr 7, 2021

The old Chicago and Northwestern train depot on Anderson St. in Rhinelander
Credit Wisconsin Historical Society

Train robberies are part of the lore of the American West and the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters.  But what was far more common than robbing a moving train was robbing the train depot, and that happened in the Northwoods back in the heyday of railroading.

In the early twentieth century, Gilligan’s Hall was a popular place to go in Rhinelander for entertainment and social activities.  Located on the corner of Anderson and Pelham Streets, Gilligan’s Hall at that time was the city’s oldest amusement house.  Originally built in 1888 by Mose Broulette, it was sold in 1902 to lumberman William Gilligan.  Under both proprietors, the building was used for shows, dances, and public meetings.  It became a popular location for union gatherings, and when Gilligan sold the building it became Rhinelander’s Labor Temple.  In the year 1909, however, Gilligan was still the owner, and a much-anticipated dance was scheduled to take place in the hall on October 14.

Fred Klug was an employee of the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad in Rhinelander and worked as the night operator in the ticket office at the railroad depot.  John Kelley and Fred Quinn, two young men who worked for the Burdick Company in Oshkosh, were in town on business and asked Klug several times throughout the day of the 14th if he would be at the dance that night.  Klug wanted to go, so he asked his boss for permission to close the ticket office for a couple of hours that night so he might partake in the dance.  Klug got permission and locked the depot office around 11:00 that night.  When Klug arrived at Gilligan’s, Kelley was there, but Kelley departed shortly after Klug’s appearance.

Klug stayed and enjoyed the festivities until 1:00 am, when he dutifully returned to the train depot.  When he got there, he found the safe opened and the contents of roughly one-hundred dollars missing.  As it turned out, all the robbers had to do was jimmy a window to gain entrance to the ticket office.  Klug had left the safe unlocked because he did not know the combination to reopen it.  On Friday morning, Kelley and Quinn boarded the first morning train and left for Crandon.

On Friday afternoon, the Rhinelander police began their investigation.  They learned Klug’s story, and another witness claimed to see a man matching Quinn’s description coming out of the Conductor’s Room at about 12:30 the previous night.  A notice was put out for Kelley and Quinn, and on Sunday the two men were arrested in Antigo and on Monday transported back to Rhinelander.

Kelley and Quinn had no prior arrest record, and their employer, D.C. Burdick of Oshkosh, rushed to their defense and said they had always been scrupulously honest and faithful workers.  In the meantime, Henry Greene, a Northwestern Railroad detective, helped the police in the search for evidence.

A preliminary hearing on the case was held on Tuesday, October 26.  The prosecution called five witnesses, none of whom could provide any proof beyond rumor and hearsay.  Kelley and Quinn had fourteen witnesses lined up and ready to testify to the whereabouts of the two men on the night of the robbery but never had to call them.  After the prosecution’s fifth witness failed to offer any evidence, Judge Walker tossed out the case.  Kelley and Quinn were free men, and the burglary was never solved.