Train wreck of 1882 among railroad’s worst

Midsummers’ Day has been celebrated in Scandinavia for hundreds of years and, for quite a few years was celebrated around here by our Scandinavian settlers. Quite a few of them worked on the railroad, and they weren’t very happy at being called back to work on a Saturday and, what was worse — Midsummer’s Day in 1882.

About three o’clock that afternoon a work train was called out to go to the Grove City gravel pits and bring back several carloads of gravel.

The Scandinavians weren’t the only ones who were put out by being called back to work on their big day. The engineer, an Irishman, had been celebrating, too, and he hadn’t been dancing around a Maypole.

He was heard announcing that he’d “give those Swedes a ride to Hell” as he boarded the engine.

The train consisted of several flat cars which were to be loaded with gravel and brought back to Willmar for use on some new rail lines.

The workmen — about 50 of them — rode the flat cars, which were considered safe enough in normal use.

However, farmers who saw the train as it passed by their fields later testified that it was traveling much faster than any train they had ever seen.

Everything was fine until the train reached the curve about three miles west of Atwater. There the tender jumped the tracks and most of the rest of the train followed. Thirteen of the people involved were killed outright and 15 were seriously injured. Many others suffered minor bruises and injuries.

The engine and tender and some of the cars landed in a big slough beside the tracks.

When word of the wreck reached Willmar a relief train was made up and volunteers, led by Dr. Rains, and railroad people boarded it for the fast trip to the scene of the accident. When it arrived the rescuers learned that neighboring farmers and people from Atwater were already on scene and were removing the dead and injured from the wreckage. Survivors were taken to Atwater as well as Willmar, and some of them were so badly injured they didn’t survive the trip.

The bodies were laid out in the lobby of a Willmar hotel and relatives or friends identified and claimed some of them for burial. The others were buried in a mass grave in Fairview Cemetery.

A coroner’s jury was convened to determine the cause of the accident, and the testimony offered did not agree. Although surviving members of the train’s crew did testify that the train had been operated in an unusual manner, farmers and other witnesses testified to the very high speed at which it hit the curve. Eventually, the jury reached a verdict citing the St. Paul & Pacific Road for not setting speed limits for gravel trains.

The wreck remains today as one of the most serious in the history of the railroad. It didn’t take long for the engine and tender to sink beneath the waters of the slough. Subsequent efforts to find and raise them have failed. They must still be there.

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