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Madison Roundhouse

Madison Roundhouse (1896)

Wisconsin Historical Society Image ID: WHi-24818

Roundhouse explosion

On January 24, 1898, the boiler of engine 249 exploded in the Chicago and Northwestern Railway company’s roundhouse a few blocks east of the passenger depot on Blount Street. Three men were instantly killed and others painfully injured.

As reported in the Madison Democrat newspaper:

“The shock was something terrific. It was plainly heard in the heart of the city, while every building in the Sixth Ward rattled and books fell from the desks in the schoolhouse. Immediately after the explosion, an enormous cloud of smoke and steam enveloped the building, hiding it completely from view. Many rushed to the scene from all directions. The spectacle was one not soon to be forgotten. The south half of the roundhouse was completely demolished. Huge timbers twisted and broken lay crossed in every imaginable direction, mixed with boards, rods, bricks, and scraps of iron.

It was Fred Baxter, fireman of the ill-fated engine, who was in the cab when the explosion occurred. His leg was broken by the force of the door of the boiler blowing out and striking him. Boiling water and steam and red-hot coals were pouring into the prison when he heroically kicked the door shut with his left, uninjured leg, tumbled himself out of the cab, and crawled from the ruin to his rescuers. He was promptly taken home.

Joseph Beck said a few seconds before the explosion he was standing near the ill-fated engine talking to the three men. The last words he said before stepping outside the building were addressed to his father and were to the effect that the engineer of #531 wanted the plaster of paris around the glass of his headlight replaced. The elder Beck said that he would see to it.”

The dead were Frank Beck, foreman of the roundhouse, who lived at 1128 Jenifer Street; Charles E. Young, engineer, who lived in Baraboo; and C. W. Shelper, engineer, who also lived in Baraboo. The injured were Fred Baxter, fireman, 1141 Jenifer Street; Emil Olson, machinist, 1335 Williamson Street; Joseph Beck, engine dispatcher, 1128 Jenifer Street; Fred Hagen, fireman, 904 Spaight Street; and J. W. Anderson, engineer, 17 East Gorham Street.

Coincidentally, almost exactly 12 years earlier in January 1886 a similar explosion in the roundhouse of the St. Paul Company at West Madison killed three men - Peter Burke, John DeCampel, and John Klug. Both the 1886 and 1898 explosions followed shortly after snowstorms. Some theorized that the engines in both cases were somewhat weakened by being subjected to extra strain while plowing through snowdrifts.

Mark Gajewski