My 1945 Michigan Train Crash Story by Myrna Geritz Baumann

The following story was written by Myrna Geritz Baumann on the wreck of the Empire Builder in Michigan.  Her account will be made part of the exhibit on the wreck which will be located in the Michigan Depot at Pioneer Village.  Article originally ran in the “Northwood Gleaner.”

On August 9, 1945, my mother Frances Geritz (Mrs. Jacob Geritz, Jr.), my two older sisters, Kay and Joanne, and I boarded the west bound Great Northern Empire Builder in Breckenridge, MN, never dreaming that we would become involved in one of the worst tragedies in the history of the Great Northern Railroad.  Fifty-five years has dimmed some of the vividness of that event, but we will never forget it completely.  This is our story; Frances L. Geritz (Mrs. Jacob Geritz, Jr.), Kay (Geritz) Guon, Joanne (Geritz) Quick, and Myrna (Geritz) Baumann.

After visiting my mother’s sister and her family, Dr. and Mrs. C.W. Jacobsen in Breckenridge, MN, we were returning home to Lakota.  The trains were exceptionally crowded at the time as many military personnel were traveling on the railroads during the final days of WWII.  Because the train was packed, the conductor seated us in the baggage car at the front of the train.  At that time two sections of the Empire Builder were running 25 minutes apart to accommodate the heavy rail traffic.  We were on the second section of the two.

In Grand Forks several passengers departed at which time the conductor moved our family to the last passenger car of the train.  There were many soldiers riding in that car and needless to say, they were happy and celebrating the end of the war-this accident occurred on the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan.  I remember spending a lot of time turned around in my seat visiting with them.

The first section of the Empire Builder developed mechanical problems out of Grand Forks.  It stopped near Petersburg, to cool an overheated bearing or “hotbox,” and then stopped once again for the same trouble just about one-quarter mile west of Michigan.  At this location there is a slight curve in the track, which restricted the flagman’s visibility.  This is where the awful tragedy would occur.

The speeding second section of the Empire Builder, which we were passengers on, telescoped the first train.  Even though we were in the last car on the second train, we recall the collision as a terrific impact.  Luggage and liquor bottles (the soldiers had had their supply replenished in Grand Forks) flew through the air and crashed around us.  I remember several passengers around me with injuries, especially bad cuts; and particularly dramatic to me, as I was only four years old at the time, was a female passenger holding her knocked-out teeth in her hand.  None of the four of us had injuries, although Mom remembers being stiff and aching for a few days following the accident.

My mother recalls being the first one off the train and looking ahead to see hot steam billowing out at the telescoping juncture.  In reflection, we are most grateful that the conductor moved our family from the front of the train to the last car.  Many people in the forward cars were subjected to the locomotive’s steaming bath.  Mom returned to the train car, grabbed me (the youngest), and instructed Kay and Joanne to stay with the suitcase and boxes.  My mom and I walked back to Michigan for help.  By then the immensity of the catastrophe was just beginning to case pandemonium.  As only a small number of telephone lines were available, Dominic Lamb, who recognized my mother, directed her to use the telephone at the drug store.  Because the drug store was closed at the time, shortly after 6 p.m., mom and I returned to the train to bring Kay and Joanne and the boxes back into Michigan.  By this time the drug store had reopened to aid the victims.  Joanne remembers the druggist distributing handkerchiefs to people so they could wipe off blood from their lacerations and to use bandages.  After a few attempts at calling, mom reached Walter and Mary Mootz (my dad’s sister) in Lakota, and they said they would come and pick us up.  We were most thankful to be rescued by Walter that evening.

That night we stayed in Lakota with Grandma Geritz, who lived only one block from the railroad tracks.  According to mom, speeding trains blew their whistles continuously as they raced east through Lakota to the collision sight with emergency supplies and railroad officials.

The following day we returned the sight of the collision.  The emergency people were working feverishly to extricate the injured and deceased from the mangled mass of steel with acetylene torches.  The death list included 34 persons, including 20 servicemen.  Most of the casualties occurred in the last observation car of the first section, which became a shell for the locomotive of the second train.  The Nelson County Coroner, Mr. Graham, and other officials had the horrific task of identifying the bodies.  Many others were seriously injured and burned.  These people were transported to the local hospitals, as there was no hospital in Michigan at that time.  Several members of the rescue team were from the Lakota and Michigan vicinity.

As a family we will always reflect upon the event as a gift of Divine Providence to us, as well as recalling the brave efforts made by many residents of Nelson County and the surrounding medical facilities in the rescue and healing missions created by this great tragedy.  We are hopeful that other residents of Nelson County, who may have been involved, will have personal stories to enhance our experience.  All of the details in our story may not be factually correct, but it is the story as we know and recollect it.

An associated family railroad story involves our dad, Jacob Geritz, Jr.  In those days he used to ship livestock to Chicago via the rails and accompanied the freight (cattle) train to the marketplace.  He was returning to Lakota from Chicago on the Empire Builder when the flashing news of the train accident in Michigan sped through his train like wild fire.  Dad explained to the conductor that he was quite confident that his family was on that train.  The thoughtful conductor had their train stopped at the next depot in order that dad could call back home to verify his family’s safety.  It was good news.