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Collision altered the course of rail transportation

Last Updated: Feb. 5, 2000
Lorayne Ritt

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Lorayne Ritt can be reached at 542-6797.

How the trains came to be on the same track on a collision course was the first question addressed in the aftermath. LeRoy Equitz, driving the southbound train, said that he received the white all-clear signal before the wreck. Maeder said that he also received the white signal, but other witnesses said Maeder had gotten the red halt signal.

Milwaukee District Attorney William J. McCauley questioned Maeder about a report that his train was 22 minutes behind schedule. In denying this, Maeder said he was running on "train orders" requiring him to halt at each station and phone the dispatcher.

Edson Tennyson, the vice president of Speedrail, told McCauley that he knew of no such plan. He said that Maeder's train was late and Equitz's train was on time.

On Sept. 21, McCauley charged Maeder with fourth-degree manslaughter on the recommendation of a coroner's jury that ruled he had acted with gross negligence.

At the preliminary hearing, Tennyson testified that he stopped Maeder at the last station before the accident and told him he was 16 minutes late on his run. He advised Maeder to pull over onto a siding. That didn't happen, and the crash occurred shortly afterward.

On Oct. 9, 1950, Judge Myron Gordon dismissed the manslaughter charges against Maeder, saying that while Maeder's actions were negligent, they did not constitute gross negligence as defined by law.

After the accident, commuters who had ridden the train regularly began switching to buses or private automobiles.

The company found itself in an even worse financial position and asked the Public Service Commission to allow it to discontinue its unprofitable passenger business. The PSC asked a federal court to appoint a trustee to oversee the line's reorganization.

The trustee was Milwaukee attorney Bruno V. Bitker. His first move was to force Maeder to disassociate himself from the company in an attempt to restore public confidence in the line.

But the maneuver didn't work.

Between December 1950 and June 1951, several measures were suggested to save the company.

One called for a group of Waukesha businessmen to buy the line. Another proposed a joint venture between public and private interests to run the company. A third suggestion was that the line combine with the now-defunct North Shore line and haul Waukesha spring water to Chicago. None of these ideas materialized.

Finally, on June 4, 1951, Bitker said: "Money, ideas and bailing wire have run out. This line will close." The last train of the once-proud company ran on July 2, 1951, with 150 passengers.

Next week: We retrace the history of the interurban line, which was once the mainstay of travel in southeastern Wisconsin.

Lorayne Ritt can be reached at (262) 542-6797. Her fax numberis (262) 650-0275.

Appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Feb. 6, 2000.

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