Howard Lake-Waverly Herald, Feb. 19, 2001

Recalling Howard Lake train wreck of 1918

The following information was obtained by researching volumes of the Howard Lake Herald newspaper, obtaining photographs from the Wright County Historical Society, and interviewing elders in the Howard Lake community.

By Lynda Jensen

Few travelers may know it, but as they drive in downtown Howard Lake, they pass the scene of what was the worst train wreck in the town's history, more than 80 years ago.

The accident happened 11:30 a.m., Dec. 17, 1918, when a passenger and freight train collided with each other next to the railroad depot that existed at the time - or near the empty lot north of the parking lot behind the Herald office.

The spray of wreckage covered the area from Highway 12 to the railroad tracks, leaving one person dead.

The impact of the collision caused a boxcar to roll over one of two train conductors, who was trying to escape, killing him instantly.

Wreckage from seven freight cars that jumped the tracks, including lumber, copper wire and baled hay, was strewn everywhere.

The following is taken from the front page story printed in the Howard Lake Herald, Dec. 19, 1918:


Engines of both trains completely smashed, two passenger coaches telescoped, seven freight cars knocked off the track.

By Editor Owen A. Konchal

Engineer Cavanaugh of passenger train No. 13 was instantly killed and M. Nair of St. Paul, a passenger, was pinned between two passenger coaches, while several others were injured when the passenger train going west and a freight train going east ran together in front of the depot here Tuesday morning at 11:30.

Passenger train No. 13 was just pulling into the station when the engineer saw the freight a short distance away coming at a good rate of speed.

He immediately put on the brakes and had nearly brought the train to a stop when the two engines met in a head-on collision.

Both the engineers and the firemen jumped before the crash came. Engineer Cavanaugh started to run, but slipped and fell, and as he fell, one of the box cars fell over onto him, killing him instantly.

The rest of the crew escaped uninjured with the exception of a brakeman on the freight who suffered a broken leg.

The smoking car and the next day coach telescoped each other and the ends of the cars were badly smashed up.

M. Nair of St. Paul, who is said to have been standing on the platform of the second coach, was pinned between the two cars and it was nearly a half hour before the broken timber could be cut away to remove him.

When taken out, it was found that one leg was broken and he was cut and bruised considerably about the face, hands and body. Several others in the day coaches received cuts, bruises and sprains.

The two engines were completely smashed and seven box cars, loaded with baled hay, copper wire and lumber were knocked from the track and their contents scattered on the ground.

Immediately after the collision, the engineer on the freight and the two firemen climbed up on the engines and let the steam and hot water out of the boilers of the two engines so there would be no chance of the boilers exploding.

The injured passengers were immediately taken from the train and placed in care of local physicians to receive medical treatment. They were then placed on a train in the afternoon and taken to S. Paul. The body of the engineer was also taken.

Engineer Cavanaugh has been on the line for about 35 years. He was nearly 71 years old and was to have retired on a pension at the first of the year.

Who is to blame for the accident has not been learned, as there have been several rumors as to the cause, but none of them can be verified at this writing.

Note: It is still unknown what caused the accident, since no reason appeared to be published. Insurance claims at this time period were rare, according to the Minnesota Historical Society.

The wrecking crew, also the section hands from several towns along the line, worked all afternoon, all night and most of Wednesday clearing the wreckage.

Owing to the fact that the wreck happened in front of the depot and on the main line, train service was not delayed to any extent as the other trains could get by on the side track.

Many carloads of people from the neighboring towns drove over to witness the wreck and watch the wreckers from Willmar and St. Paul work.

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