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Colfax Sesquicentennial 2014: Dams, trains and thunderstorms

By LeAnn R. Ralph

COLFAX —  In honor of the Colfax Sesquicentennial celebration July 17-20, 2014, the history installment for this edition of the Colfax Messenger is about one particularly unfortunate year in 1905 when the dam went out and plunged Colfax into darkness; when severe thunderstorms caused considerable wide-spread damage; and when the bridge collapsed and dumped the train into the river, killing two people.

Part 11: Calamity

The headline in the March 17, 1905, edition of the Colfax Messenger reads, “Dam Goes Out. Village Now in Darkness.”

Here is the story:

“Sometime during the night last Friday, the dam across the stream known as Eighteen Mile Creek in the village broke and a portion of it was swept away, leaving the village in darkness, as it cut off the means of supplying power for operating the dynamo that furnishes the street and many of the home lights.

“It had been the intention of its owners, we are told, to put in a new substantial dam of modern style, and now it becomes an absolutely necessity, but will make it so that no lights can be furnished for some time.

“Manager O.I. Anderson informs us that he expects to begin the building of a substantial dam to be made of stone as soon as the frost will permit, and that it will likely take about two months to complete it.

“With the erection of a new substantial dam, much better power will be obtained and much better service can be had.

“A speedy completion of this project can not fail to be of inestimable value to the best interests of our village and we hope to see it constructed at an early date.”

A person could be forgiven for thinking that the following editions of the Messenger would have more news about the dam and the lack of electricity — but there is nothing.

The April 7, 1905, edition of the Messenger notes, however, that the opera house in Wheeler recently received new scenery and new curtains, and that the gentleman who worked on the Wheeler opera house, Mr. A. Peabody, “arrived Wednesday and is arranging to put in a new set of scenery and curtains in the Opera House in the village.”

Storm and flood

The June 9, 1905, edition of the Colfax Messenger reports that widespread thunderstorms have caused considerable damage.

“The continued electrical storms and the immense downpour of rain the fore part of the week seems to have been quite general throughout the northwest and considerable damage from lightning and flood is reported from various sources.

“Fed by the streams above, the Red Cedar River at this place became a raging torrent and it was thought at one time might sweep the heavy iron bridge from its foundation. Several families along the low lands were endangered and some sought higher land for safety.

“A.C. Hayner, whose farm home is near the river just north of town, had a close call — the water reaching nearly to the door, while the Thomas Anderson home just across the bridge, they had to get out to save drowning.

“Farther down at the W.A. Mathews farm, cattle had to be rescued from a lowland pasture. It is thought by many of the old residents that the water never was higher at this place than it has been this week.

“Reports from other localities show similar circumstances, and in many cases worse than ours has been.”

Bridge collapsed

The article directly below the story about the flood has the headline “Bridge Collapsed And Let Passenger Train into the River.”

Two people died, and a $25 reward was offered for the recovery of each body.

Here is the story:

“On account of the high water, the railroad bridge across the Red Cedar River two miles west of town became unsafe Wednesday, and it was ordered that all trains ‘slow up’ before crossing, and when train No. 2 from the west approached, it stopped and Conductor Hayes examined the bridge, but to be more certain, all passengers were allowed to get out while an attempt was made to get the train across the bridge, but when about the center, it gave way letting the engine, mail and baggage coaches into the river.

“Engineer Chas. Phipps and Fireman Will Severance went down with the wreck and as we go to press have not yet been recovered.

“Two ‘bums’ also went in but succeeded in making their escape. All through traffic is thus cut off and likely will be so for some time. A reward of $25 has been offered for the recovery of each body.”

Card of Thanks

The June 16, 1905, edition of the Colfax Messenger contained a Card of Thanks on the front page.

“We desire to express thanks to the people of Colfax, who so kindly assisted in the search and recovery of the remains of Engineer Chas. Phipps and Fireman W.E. Severance, on behalf of the relatives of the deceased and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen.”

More storms

The June 23, 1905, edition of the Messenger contains several more stories about thunderstorms on the front page.

“One of the worst electric storms ever witnessed in this locality swept over us last Friday evening, reaching its fury at about 8 o’clock. Lightning and thunder were almost incessant for half an hour, leaving its mark in several places.

“A barn belonging to Jacob Olson, who resides three miles east of town, was struck and burned to the ground. Dr. Larsen’s house received a bolt that set some papers on fire on a table, but apparently did no other damage, while the house of W.A. Mathews four miles southwest of town was struck and considerable damage done. It is fortunate however that no lives were lost and only small loss reported.”

Normal School

Another article in the same edition of the Messenger reports storm damage in Menomonie.

“June 18 the worst electric storm for many years passed over this city, followed by heavy wind, which unroofed outbuildings, blew down trees and did much damage. Lightning struck many places near the city. One farm house was burned. Lightning struck at the Oak Lawn stock farm, killing four horses. The Dunn County normal school was also struck.”

Electric light plant

The July 14, 1905, edition the Colfax Messenger reports that O.I. Anderson has sold the mill and the electric light plant that he owned to E.B. and Albert Hill. Mr. Anderson will retain ownership of the telephone company.

The Messenger does not, however, include any information about the status of the new dam or whether electricity has been restored to Colfax.


It appears that by September, the dam that had gone out in March was on its way to being repaired.

The September 15, 1905, edition of the Messenger contains this article:

“Messrs Hill & Co. are preparing to make some improvements on the dam in the village and raise the head of water so as to give them more power. This is a good move, as more power will not come amiss, even in running the lights.”

Another storm

The September 22 edition of the Messenger reports another severe thunderstorm.

“At about 2:45 a.m. last Saturday morning in the midst of a severe electrical storm, a sharp flash of lightning followed by a quick report of thunder reminded us that it was very close, and within a minute a cry of Fire! Fire! Fire! was heard and soon the fire bell began to announce the startling news  to the sleeping town.”

The lightning had struck the barn of S. G. Bjerkness. By the time the fire department got there, it appeared that nearby property was also going to catch on fire. The barn was a total loss, but the other buildings were saved.

The Messenger reports that Mr. Bjerkness had insurance of $200 on the barn, which would help replace the lumber to build a new one. About a ton of hay and a few other small articles were the only losses aside from the building.


The September 29, 1905, edition of the Messenger reports that a sack of mail from the wrecked train was discovered in the river. At this point, the train is still in the river, too.

The mail “was at last delivered, except three photos on which the address was defaced so as not to be legible but was later identified.”

Gas lights

The October 6, 1905, edition of the Messenger reports that gas lights have been installed in several stores downtown as well as in the barbershop.

Still no mention of whether the dam is operational or if electricity is being generated.

Engine still in river

The October 20, 1905, edition of the Messenger reports that for several weeks, a crew has been working with a sand pump to remove sand from around the engine and tender of the train still in the Red Cedar River two miles west of the village. An eighty ton derrick has been used to try to get the engine and tender out of the river.

“Little progress was made until Wednesday, when the diver employed succeeded in separating the tender from the engine, when that part of the machine was swung out in shallow water.

“The work of removing the engine will likely be a more tedious job and will in all probability take several days.”

Engine out

The December 3, 1905, edition of the Colfax Messenger reports that the train engine was finally removed from the Red Cedar River.

“After nearly six months of effort, the famous Engine No. 269 that went down with the Red Cedar bridge on June 7th last, was placed on the rails of a side track on Monday in the forenoon.

“Thus the last remnant of that fatal wreck that carried with it the lives of both Engineer and Fireman, has been removed from the water, and before many weeks roll around, we will likely see that same No. 269 fully repaired and making its regular runs again.

“This wreck has certainly been an expensive one to the Company, as a crew of men of from one to two dozen have been employed at the removal of the Engine for several months.”

And farther down in the column, this news note:

“The big Wisconsin Central passenger engine that had ‘slept’ at the bottom of the Red Cedar river for nearly six months, was taken through town Wednesday on its way to the shop for repairs.”