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Tragedy at Orchard Beach Crossing

Updated: Dec 15, 2020

NOTE: Sections of the following blog post were taken from a two-part series written for the Manistee News Advocate in the July 11 and July 18, 2014 issues. The article has been consolidated for this post.

The accompanying audio track for this post was taken from a September 18, 1979 interview recorded at the Manistee County Council on Aging in which a group of senior citizens spoke at length about different topics that happened in Manistee. The people being interviewed are unidentified.

During the late 1890s through the early 1920s, one of the most popular modes of transportation in Manistee was the Manistee, Filer City, and Eastlake Street Railway. While fairly common in bigger cities but unique to a town Manistee’s size, the railway line provided locals with an accessible way to travel around. The railway line was comprised of 14 miles of single track and wound its way down River Street as well as along the shore of Manistee Lake connecting to Filer City and Eastlake while making numerous stops along the way for drop-offs and pick-ups.

On the route of the railway line was Peanut Junction, a branch located just north of the city limits which allowed the streetcar to travel out to Orchard Beach which was, at that time, a popular picnic and resort area that was built up by the railway. This particular branch of the railway line also crossed with a train from the Manistee and Northeastern Railroad (M. & N.E.) at Orchard Beach Crossing.

With the city’s annual Homecoming celebration taking place in town, coupled with the Fourth of the July holiday Manistee’s population was larger than most normal Wednesday afternoons during the summer season.

While the M. & N.E. train (No. 3) normally made the crossing at 3:00 p.m., on that particular day the train was delayed two hours due to the coming and going of holiday crowds eventually commencing its run at 5:00 p.m.

About 10 minutes later, a powered streetcar and two trailers carrying an estimated 100 people was coasting down the second grade of the railway line heading from Orchard Beach into the city. As they inched closer to the crossing, the train’s whistle and bell could be heard in the distance, but the motorman and conductor were unable to stop their cars thus entering into the direct path of the M. & N.E. train at Orchard Beach Crossing.

The train similarly attempted to stop by applying its emergency brakes, but collision was unavoidable with the train passing between the motor cars, ripping them apart. Vivid details surrounding the accident were published in the Manistee News Advocate on July 5, 1917. Portions of the original article follow:

“The grim specter of tragedy trailed in the wake of gaiety and gladness yesterday as an appalling occurrence late in the afternoon turned a day of festivity into a day of mourning and cast a spell of sorrow over an occasion intended for rejoicing.

“Two lives snuffed out instantly at an always perilous grade crossing and more than a score of bruised and maimed victims of the holiday disaster put an effectual blight on what up to that time had been a perfect day devoted to sane observance of the Fourth.

“All Manistee was profoundly shocked by the immensity and the horror of the ghastly calamity. The gayest of the gay holidaymakers were instantly sobered, and the remainder of the day’s joyous program and was automatically suspended.

“Thousands of townspeople and more thousands of visitors and homecomers were attracted to the scene. They turned stricken and horrified beyond expression. Exaggerated reports of the extent of the casualties spread and multiplied. Gaily bedecked automobiles were requisitioned as ambulances to convey badly injured persons to the hospital, and the gay trappings of the conveyances intensified the horror.

“All thought of further revels was abandoned, almost spontaneously. The glittering waxed pavement prepared for the evening dance held out no invitations. The bands were dismissed, and the sole topic of conversation among the street throngs was the tragedy of the afternoon.

“A coroner’s jury, impaneled immediately after the accident, this afternoon is essaying the difficult task of fixing the responsibility. Had the M. & N.E. train left yesterday at its usual time the accident would not have happened, or at least not to the same victims. Had the brakes of the street car, with its two attached trailers, performed their allotted functions, Manistee would have not now be in universal mourning.

“But fate willed otherwise. Manistee has been visited by a terrible bereavement on its annual occasion of greatest gaiety, its heretofore always joyous homecoming date. Nothing can undo what has been done.

“One of the most sorrowful incidents in Manistee’s history is now inscribed in its chronology.

“All Manistee joins today in a universal expression of condolence to the bereaved. Their loss is our loss, their sorrow, our sorrow. And the heartfelt sympathy of the entire community goes to the injured, with the hope of a speedy recovery.”

The two women who were killed in the accident were Mrs. Emma Landis of Manistee and Miss Frieda Kaiser of Mason County. Emma Landis, her husband John, and young son (Bernard) were all riding on the railway car at the time of the accident. They had recently moved to Manistee in the spring of 1917 and made their home on Vine Street. Emma was instantly killed with a maimed forefinger being the only identifying factor of her badly mangled body. While she passed away her husband and son were taken to Mercy Sanitarium. Miss Frieda Kaiser lived in Mason County and was to have been married the following Sunday to farmer August Wiesner who was also injured in the collision.

Along with death of the two women there were at least 20 injured in the crash. Of those 20 people, it was reported that seven of them went home after their injuries were taken care of while 13 remained in the hospital for a longer period of time.

Under many sets of tragic situations there are often acts of heroism that accompany the scenes of disaster. One of the people that jumped forth in an act of bravery was Officer J.J. Brignon who quickly saved two women from what could have been certain death. His actions, published in the same issue of the Manistee News Advocate follow:

“Recruiting Officer J.J. Brignon was returning from Orchard Beach with Miss Luella Burns of Ludington. Seated near him was Miss Irene Cota. All were seated near the rear of the car.

“Brignon, glancing out the window, saw the train approaching. He realized that it would strike the car. Using force he seized Miss Burns and thrust her to the forward end of the street car.

“Returning a few steps he grabbed Miss Cota and pushed her forward. He jumped over the back of a seat toward the front end of the car just as the train plowed into them.

“With a broken shoulder, badly cut hand, scratched and bruised face and head, Brignon recovered his senses and carried the young women from the wrecked car with his one , good arm. He then gave up and was in a state of collapse when help arrived.”

Similarly, the Wiswell family also acted quickly when they noticed the oncoming collision; saving their children in the process.

“The smash-up was a close shave for many people who were not seriously hurt. Among this number are Mr. and Mrs. Harry Wiswell and children aged two and three years, who jumped from the windows of the car before the collision took place.

“‘We were in the motor car, and we waited until we saw that the brakes wouldn’t work. Then we both got up and pitched the children out of the windows and then jumped ourselves.’ “Mrs. Wiswell, though much shaken up, was able to add further details: “‘We heard the whistle at the cemetery crossing and knew that the train was coming,” she said. “but thought, of course, the brakes would work and I waited for the motorman to put on the brakes. We were only four or five feet from the track when I saw that they weren’t going to work. I stood up and looked at my husband, and we didn’t have time to say a word, but each throw a child out of the window. It all happened in just about an instant.’”

On July 9, 1917, while his father was recovering from injuries incurred in the accident, Bernard Landis passed away making him the third victim of the train/railway collision.

While the town was still reeling from the events of the Fourth of July tragedy, two days later the first in a series of investigations took place. On July 6, 1917 local coroner, William Nungessor, held an inquest to find out information as to what exactly happened when the train collided with the streetcar. Assisting in discerning the facts of the investigation were six local “jury” members: Charles E. Schewe, Fred Field, Allen McKee, Martin P. Anderson, Gust Schmidt, and Joseph Baur. In addition to the six men, Prosecuting Attorney, Howard L. Campbell, lent his expertise by questioning several witnesses which included, Ed Smith, motorman of the railway car.

After a series of inquests into the accident took place, it was found that the accident was caused by the failure of the streetcar crew to come to a full stop before passing over the crossing, as Section 32 of Public Act 382 (amended in 1913) stated, “Street railway companies shall require the drivers of street cars to bring such cars to a full stop before going upon a street railway crossing or the tracks of a steam railroad, and to make sure that no engine or cars are approaching such crossing before he proceeds to go upon the same. If the driver of any streetcar shall neglect to bring such car to a stop, as hereinbefore provided, he shall for every such neglect be liable to a fine of twenty-five dollars.”

Once the hearing was done, the commissioners issued the following recommendations for precautionary methods to be taken by the M. & N. E. and the Manistee Street Railway. Those recommendations were as follows: 1) That M. & N.E. railroad slow its trains to 15 miles per hour at Orchard Beach Crossing during the season the street cars make the Orchard Beach run. 2) That the Manistee Street Railway Co., install derailing device at the crossing. 3) That until a derailer is installed a watchman be stationed at the crossing. 4) That he street railway call in an expert on brakes to give information for improving the system of brakes used on the city cars. 5) That a bell cord system of signals be installed so that the conductor and motorman can signal each other. 6) That one conductor for each trailer should be the rule on Sundays and holidays.

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