Voices from the Grave: The Illinois Central Railroad wreck of 1901

By Kathi Kresol
Contributor

The news that awaited Maude M. Stuart when she arrived in Rockford from Chicago was devastating. The doctors that were treating her fiancé Harry Wellman were not optimistic about his survival. Maude and Harry were supposed to be married on Christmas Eve in 1901 but doctors now feared that family members would be attending Harry’s funeral instead of his wedding. Maude was only 19 years old and lived close to Harry in Chicago. The newspapers all described Maude as very pretty and extremely stoic throughout the ordeal.

Harry Wellman was only 24 years old in 1901. He worked for the Illinois Central Railroad as a tank inspector for the water division and lived in Western Springs, Illinois. Harry was in Waterloo, Iowa to repair a water tank when he secured a seat on the Omaha Special passenger train on December 14, 1901 to hurry home to his fiancée and his upcoming wedding. Harry had been away from home for over three weeks, leaving Maude to work with the families to finish the last-minute wedding preparations.

Maude was with Wellman’s family when the news of a horrendous train wreck was delivered in a telegram. They hurried to Rockford to be with Harry still unaware of what had actually happened. Harry’s arm had been horribly mangled in a train wreck that occurred on December 14, 1901.

The newspapers called this accident the worst in Winnebago history during that time and stated that it should have never happened. A freight train that was traveling west had a head on collision with a passenger train that was approaching from the east. The accident happened two miles east of the city and the details of this horrific crash proved that it was astonishing that anyone survived. The trains both caught on fire immediately after the crash and people who survived the initial impact were once again in danger. They fled the train with clothing in tatters and terribly injured. That December night was frigid with temperatures falling well below the zero mark adding another type of threat for the passengers.

Nine men were killed in the initial wreck and more perished from the fire. Though the men that died that night were not from Rockford, the community joined together to care for the living and the dead.

Harry was in such excruciating pain after the accident that he begged his rescuers to throw him into the snow so he could freeze to death. They worked to keep him alive until help arrived. Harry was brought to Rockford with several other train wreck victims and treated in the City Hospital. He was the most severely injured of all the survivors and doctors decided that amputation was the only way to save Harry’s life. They amputated Harry’s arm right below the elbow.

Maude stayed by Harry’s side through his long, painful recovery, never giving up on the dream that one day they would walk down the aisle in the wedding that she had worked so hard to plan.

It took two long years for Harry to regain his health during which he fought the Illinois Central Railroad for a reasonable settlement for the loss of his arm. They finally compromised on $12,000 which at that time was the largest sum ever paid for a claim of any kind.

The couple was finally married in 1903 and though it wasn’t quite the wedding she had originally planned, the day was a dream come true for this young couple.


 

This story is an excerpt from the soon to be released book, “Murder and Mayhem in Rockford, Illinois” from local historian and author, Kathi Kresol.

There will be a Book Release Event on Sunday, November 15 from 2-4 p.m. at the Camp Grant Museum , 1004 Samuelson Road, in Rockford. There will be copies of the book available for purchase and light refreshments will be served.

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