Herald JournalHerald Journal, Oct. 13, 2003

Train in lake
The cars can been seen floating in the lake. Notice the little boy standing at the end of the tracks looking at the lake, as well as the cars that had made it across the bridge can be seen on the other side. The Winsted Lake dam can be seen in the upper right portion of the photo. Phot courtesy of Jack and Petie Littfin.

50 years ago: train trestle collapses into Winsted Lake

By Ryan Gueningsman

Half a century ago, Winsted looked a little different.

It had a train depot, a depot agent, as well as a bridge, or "trestle" as it was locally known that went across the southeast bay of Winsted Lake.

Fifty years ago this Friday, Oct. 17, at 2:30 p.m., that bridge collapsed while a train was going across the lake. Nine cars ended up submerged in Winsted Lake. Workers tried unsuccessfully to fill in where the bridge was, and the bridge was never rebuilt.

The railroad track was diverted to go around Winsted Lake where the Luce Line State Trail is today.

No one was injured when the cars went in the lake, although it did cause a flurry of activity in Winsted ­ including local and statewide media coverage, and countless visitors who came just to see the downed bridge and submerged cars.

"I saw it happen," recalls Rodney Gutzmann of Winsted.

Gutzmann was heading north in a field near where the trestle went across the southeast bay of Winsted Lake.

"I saw the engine and some cars go across, than the water started splashing and they just kept rolling in and rolling in.

"They were all boxcars, I believe they were filled with grain. They were coming from out west and were hauling harvest grain to Minneapolis.

"I went and looked and of course there was nobody around then to start with, but then a lot of people came and gathered and the word spread fast," he said.

At first, the railroad's original plan was to fill dirt across where the trestle had gone across, and that is how Milo Kubasch and his father Herb got involved because they had a construction company at the time.

The first thing that the Kubasches did was to pull the cars that were on the west side of the break back to Winsted. Herb and Milo proceeded to get four or five truckloads of dirt and gravel from Lester Prairie in an attempt to fill in where the trestle went.

"They filled probably a day or so, and it just kept sinking away," Gutzmann said. "The original bridge was built in the winter, and they drove piles down. It was always said they were 90-foot piles. I have no idea if that's true or not, but the bridge stood on that piling."

The bridge was originally built in the winter of either 1913 or 1914, said Luce Line historian Gary Lenz of Winsted. They had two teams of horses, and they had a rope and pulley arrangement, which lifted up a hammer and drove the piles into the lake bottom.

The railway proceeded towards the Twin Cities and ended on the spot where the Target Center is located now, Lenz said.

Rebuilding and recovery

As soon as it was realized that the fill was sinking and the plan to rebuild the bridge would be unsuccessful, a crew began clearing and rerouting the track where the Luce Line State Trail now is.

"The guy that was heading up the building of the railbed was a Scotchman by the name of McPherson, and he had to purchase land from my mother, and also Ferdinand Rhode to get it to go where the Luce Line goes now," Gutzmann said.

"They worked for 10 to 12 days straight from dawn to dusk, even Sunday," Milo Kubasch said. "October was a high shipping time with the harvest."

After they had the new rail line running, they got a big Caterpillar in there and drug out what they could. The rails were taken off the bridge that winter, and the bridge was demolished, Gutzmann said.

"How much is left in there, I couldn't tell you," Gutzmann said. "The piles have to be in there because I don't think they were pulled out."

The cause of the collapse

Lenz has not seen any official documentation of the cause of the crash; however, he was told by several different people what the cause was.

"Jerry Lewis, who was the conductor, had a 'slow order' for going across the bridge because of its condition," Lenz said.

It has always been said that one of the rails broke and went through the floor of a boxcar, causing it to jackknife and go down, taking the bridge with it.

The depot agent's tale

The depot agent in 1953 was Fran Littfin.

Before Littfin died June 23, 1994, he did an interview with Lenz in 1986, who was working on the Winsted Centennial Book at the time.

Littfin retired from being depot agent April 14, 1972, and lived in Winsted the rest of his life.

Littfin recalled the same tale of the eastbound train falling into Winsted Lake. He said the locomotive and six cars had crossed the lake already, and nine cars had fallen into the lake.

He also remembered that the cars were filled with oats and corn. Nineteen cars and the caboose did not fall in.

Littfin also told Lenz that the cars that had not fallen in were towed by Herb Kubasch's payloader back to Winsted.

The locomotive and the six cars proceeded east to Minneapolis. The cars that were left in the lake were retrieved in the winter months.

The tracks were re-laid along the south shore of Winsted Lake. They completed the construction of the new roadbed Nov. 5, 1953. The first train went through on the new tracks at 2:20 p.m.

Remembering the bridge before its collapse

"When I was a kid, that trestle was a big deal for me and the neighborhood kids," Gutzmann said. "We used to start here on the west side, and see who could make it across the bridge by walking on the rails.

"We knew when the train was coming, so a lot of times we would sit on these side posts when the train was going across the bridge," he said. "We thought that was a lot of fun ­ we had the train schedule pretty much down."

"We would get out there and sit on the bridge. The train would go by and they'd wave at us," Gutzmann said. "The old bridge would shake and rattle ­ now, that would never happen."

Kubasch also recalled that his son Keith was about six years old at the time of the crash, and he and some of his friends had walked across the bridge and out to the dam shortly before the bridge collapsed.

Train speed was about 20 to 30 miles per hour, Lenz said. The railway had passenger service to the Twin Cities, stopping in Watertown and several other cities along where the Luce Line is now.

There was also mail service two times a day, Gutzmann remembered.

"It was told to my mother, and me as well, that they had just made a track inspection about two weeks before this happened," Gutzmann said. "They thought maybe the bridge was not in the best shape it could have been, but they were losing money, so they didn't want to spend any more than they had to.

"In hindsight, that would have been money well-spent to make the repairs on that bridge."

Local and statewide news coverage of the event

Television was relatively new in the 1950s, but photos and articles about the wreck did appear on several television channels, as well as in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, in addition to local papers.

The following excerpts were taken from back issues of local newspapers, and are reprinted exactly as were written.

Railroad trestle collapses, 9 cars in lake

From the Winsted Journal, Thursday, Oct. 29, 1953

Plans to re-build old right-of-way abandoned

All available help at work building new road on south side of bay

Excitement was at high pitch here Saturday afternoon when the alarm came in that the timber trestle supporting about 600 feet of track on the Minnesota Western railroad about one mile east of Winsted across the south bay of Winsted Lake, formerly known as Lake Eleanor, collapsed in the center and nine cars loaded with corn and oats went into the water.

It was a train load of 34 cars, six cars and the locomotive had gone over the break, the next nine cars went down, and the 19 cars in the rear remained on the track. Cause for the collapse has not been determined.

Immediate action was taken to fill up on both sides of the trestle so that repair work could be started as soon as possible. The work continued for two days with the fresh dirt sinking in the mud as fast as it could be hauled. Finally the road officials came to the conclusion that to repair the damaged road was too great a task and it was abandoned and a decision was made to build the right-of-way around the south side of the bay.

In a matter of a few hours large "bulldozers" were at work pushing over trees and clearing the ground for a new track. All available manpower has been put to work taking up the old track, and just how long it will be before the newly constructed right-of-way will be ready for service, only time will tell.

The trestle is approximately 600 feet long and was built 40 years ago. We have been told that it is 39 years since the first train passed over it.

For the present the mired cars will remain in their present position, however some of the corn is being salvaged. It has been sold to local farmers.

The accident has been mentioned by Twin City broadcasting stations and some pictures were also shown by TV, thus the affair has created much curiosity and thousands of folks have come to view the mess.

One of the old landmarks that had to "give-way" for the new right-of-way is a rail fence on the Ferd. Rhode farm of which he had great pride. The fence no doubt was built over half a century, but re-located when the road bed was laid 40 years ago.

The Journal had obtained a mat, a reproduction of a picture of the accident that appeared in Monday morning's Tribune, which we had intended to use in this week's issue, but in attempting to cast it for our use the mat warped and the stereotype wasn't fit for use.

Railroad bridge collapses at Winsted Saturday

From the Lester Prairie News, Thursday, Oct. 29, 1953

The middle span of the 600 ft. railroad bridge over Winsted Lake collapsed last Saturday as a 34 car Minnesota-Western freight train passed over it. Nine railroad cars, some loaded with corn and oats, plunged into the 8 ft. deep lake. No one was injured.

Recovery and repair was started immediately.

Nine freight cars plunge into lake

From the Howard Lake Herald, Thursday, Nov. 5 1953

Nine freight cars plunged into the south end of Lake Eleanor near Winsted Sunday before last when a bridge collapsed. Minnesota Western Railroad bridge over the lake is about a block in length. No one was injured in the accident.

The bridge gave way after the engine and several of the loaded freight cars had crossed the crucial point. Nine cars plunged into the water, and the other cars remained on the bridge rails.

Some of the cars were half submerged and were badly damaged with splinters floating in all directions. Contents of the cars was shelled corn and it too was strewn all over the water.

Railroad officials are investigating the cause of the derailment. Repair work was begun immediately.

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