Rain, lightning and a train wreck in Freeborn County

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 6, 2002

When the people boarded an early morning Minneapolis and St. Louis (M. & St. L.) Railroad passenger train at the Albert Lea depot on Aug. 14, 1909, they were likely talking about the weather. During the night a heavy rainfall accompanied by an overabundance of flashy lightning had swept across south central Minnesota.

A few of the folks going north on the M. & St. L. may have been aware of the damages already caused by the overnight storm in Albert Lea. For example, a stone retaining wall to the rear of the city hall (then located on North Broadway Avenue) washed away. There was six inches of water covering the floor of the Albert Lea Light and Power Co. plant on West Main Street near the present site of Snyder Drug.

If there had been early morning radio and television newscasts back in 1909, some of the people getting ready to leave the city by train would have found out that the overnight storm was just one of several storms which had resulted in damages over a wide area.

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The news that morning could have mentioned the two cows killed by lightning as they stood near a barbed-wire fence in a pasture near Alden. Lightning also caused fires which destroyed the Summit Store in Steele County, the Rock Island Railroad depot in Faribault, and several barns in the Faribault, Owatonna and Adams areas.

A news report in the Tribune in the Aug. 14, 1909, edition of the Tribune (which came out later in the day) said lightning struck four homes in Owatonna, the Hotel Ellendale in Ellendale, and the Rock Island depot in Ellendale. However, other than structural damages to the roofs, no fires resulted.

There was one news item which could have made the passengers on the M. & St. L. train somewhat apprehensive that particular morning. Yet, communications weren’t too advanced nine decades ago.

A Chicago and NorthWestern Railroad freight train late in the evening of Aug. 13, 1909, had ran into what later news reports said were &uot;soft tracks&uot; east of Owatonna. Most of the freight cars of this train ended up in the rain-filled ditch and several sections of railroad tracks were torn up.

M. & St. L. Train No. 3 left the Albert Lea depot about 5 a.m. and head north. The first stop was at the Manchester depot. Then the train picked up speed on its way to the next stop at the Hartland depot.

A short news item in the Aug. 18, 1909, issue of the Freeborn County Standard explained what happened next:

&uot;The fast passenger train going north last Saturday morning (Aug. 14) ran off the tracks a mile south of town (Hartland) and all the coaches except two went into the ditch. None of the passengers were seriously hurt and they were all picked up by the train that followed an hour later and taken back to Albert Lea and around by Austin (and Owatonna) to Waseca. The wrecking crew had the track in

passable condition for the late trains Saturday night. The heavy rains of Friday night had washed away and softened the road bed which was the principal cause of the train being wrecked.&uot;

More details about the train wreck were reported in the Tribune. The mishap took place near a place called the Wangen farm. Heavy rainfall had undermined the trackage and filled the ditches with water. The locomotive passed over the weakened trackage. One of the coaches fell into a pool of water which had developed on both sides and even under the tracks to create a washout. This caused the other units in the train to become part of a jumbled mess. The water was deep enough to rise up to the seats inside one or two of the coaches.

All the passengers managed to evacuate the wrecked coaches and wait for the next train from the south which would take them back to Albert Lea so they could resume their interrupted journeys.