Runaway Train: The Manitowoc and Two Rivers Story

On March 7, 1958, a routine freight train departed from Manitowoc, WI headed for Two Rivers, about 8 miles northeasterly along Lake Michigan. 

The train consisted of nine cars loaded with a variety of goods, including lumber and sand. What should have been a simple journey quickly turned into a the plot of a movie when the crew decided to take an early morning breakfast break. Thankfully, other than the sinking of the engine and two box cars, there were no injuries.

The crew that stopped for breakfast had not properly secured the train before leaving. As a result, the train began to move on its own, picking up speed as it traveled down the tracks. Despite efforts to catch up with the train and bring it to a stop, the crew was unable to do so.

"This photo shows Chicago and Northwestern Switch Engine 1083 after it was recovered from the bottom of the Two Rivers Harbor. The front trucks (wheels) are missing because the engine was stuck in 12 feet of mud and when the lift was made to remove the engine the trucks snapped off." MCHS 2004.44.1176 (Manitowoc County Historical Society)

Today, we explore the history of this incident and line, along the now abandoned Chicago & Northwestern branch between the two cities. Thanks to the Manitowoc County Historical Society for their research and help with this blog!

The Manitowoc-Two Rivers corridor was actually served by both the subject CNW line and the earlier interurban line known as the Manitowoc and Two Rivers Railway, which ended service in 1929.

The Manitowoc & Two Rivers Railway trolley is seen in front of the Manitowoc Savings Bank on South Eighth Street. This is one of the trolley cars that traveled between Manitowoc and Two Rivers, beginning around 1902. Manitowoc had trolley or streetcars until 1929. (UW-Madison Library)

As shown on our Abandoned & Out-of-Service Railroad Lines map, the interurban paralleled present-day WI-42 to the east hugging Lake Michigan while the CNW route headed north from Manitowoc about a mile inland, before heading northeasterly towards Two Rivers and the lake.

CNW 1493 en route to Manitowoc, WI along the branch. (Forgotten Railways, Roads & Places photo collection)

Built in 1872 by the Milwaukee Lake Shore & Western from Sheboygan to Two Rivers, the branch had an otherwise fairly benign history as a short branch of the CNW, albeit one that connected two cities with Lake Michigan ports in the late 19th and 20th centuries.

Back to March of 1958. Once the crew had returned from breakfast to where the train should have been, it was no longer in sight, heading to Two Rivers at speeds approaching eight miles per hour. Thankfully, there is little in the way of elevation change or curves along the branch, unlike the disaster that occurred at Lac Megantic, QC.

The train crossed 20 crossings without sounding its horn, and witnesses soon observed the train moving without the crew. The branch customarily would flag each crossing with a lantern and red flag, so the lack of flagging was in itself a red flag for the public (excuse the pun). It then was observed by police, who noted the lack of flagging but did not pursue the train nor call the railroad, since they were unaware a train was missing and it was still moving very slowly. 

Looking south towards Manitowoc along the line behind what is now Renee's Specialties. This was taken in 2022, long after the last train used these tracks, but this would have been the point that the train began accelerating to dangerous speeds.

But the train quickly gained speed despite the lack of elevation, and by the time it arrived in Two Rivers, witnesses observed it traveling at about 50 miles per hour before plunging into the harbor. At first, police didn't believe a witness who observed the incident. Only after Two Rivers Police saw the train engine’s headlight underwater did they contact the Manitowoc PD.

The CNW swing bridge entering Two Rivers, WI from the south. It's hard to imagine a train running through it at 50 mph without destroying it, but nonetheless it still stands long after the abandonment of the line. (FRRandP photo, 2018)

It took several days to pull the engine (CNW 1083) out of the water, as it was caked in 12 feet of mud. But it was still repaired and brought back into service. According to the investigation of the incident, someone had advanced the throttle during the crew break and then left the engine. No one was ever found, and no one came forward admitting guilt.

Today, the incident is a footnote in the history of rail transportation in the region. While it may not have been as dramatic or devastating as some other incidents, it nonetheless highlights the importance of vigilance and attention to detail in the transportation industry. Once again, thankfully, no one was hurt in this event, but it isn't hard to see how this event could have turned deadly very quickly were some of the variables a bit different.

Thanks as always for reading!


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