The Railroad Tombstone at North Prairie
Text Copyright ©2009 Den Adler
WSOR 4025 East pauses next to the tombstone for MIlwaukee & Mississippi Railroad conductor George E. Price on March 23, 2009, 150 years to the day after he died from injuries in an accident at Milton.
Close up of George Price tombstone at North Prairie, Wisconsin on the 150th Anniversary of his death, March 23, 2009. Photos Copyright ©2009 Don Pingel.
From the highway, the monument looks out of place, sitting there by itself, a 10-foot shaft of white marble, out past the outfield in North Prairie’s ball park along the Wisconsin & Southern railroad tracks.
If you walk across the field for a closer look, you notice the tombstone’s eroded lettering faces the train tracks, not the highway, and you can barely make out its message spliced by the image of an old railroad passenger car:
George E. Price
Died at Milton
March 23, A.D. 1859
Aged 31 yrs. & 3 mos.
Late conductor on M. & M. R.R.
This monument is erected as a tribute
of respect by the employees of the
Milwaukee & Mississippi Railroad Co.
So George Price died at Milton, but his grave is in North Prairie, 35 miles east toward Milwaukee, along the tracks of the first railroad to cross Wisconsin.
In the 1950s, the monument’s origin was unknown, even to most citizens of North Prairie. The station agent for the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad (The Milwaukee Road) told a reporter he’d heard several stories, including one of a train wreck at the monument’s site. But in 1955, The Milwaukee Journal’s “Green Sheet” ran two photographs and a story by William F. Starke about the “Mystery of the Railroad Grave.” Starke described a tall tombstone next to a sidetrack switch, with an “untidy” picket fence around the weed-covered grave. Now, 150 years after George Price’s death in Milton and his burial in North Prairie, the railroad switch, the side track, and the fence are gone, the grass is cut, and the internet tells the story to anyone curious enough to search.
In the early 1850s, the Milwaukee & Mississippi Railroad laid its tracks west out of Milwaukee through Waukesha, North Prairie, and Milton (with a track down to Janesville), through Madison and Spring Green, and finally all the way to Prairie du Chien on the Mississippi River. The tracks eventually became part of the Milwaukee Road, and today, the red-and-gray locomotives of the Wisconsin & Southern Railroad Co. pull long trains through North Prairie past George Price’s grave.
George Price worked M & M Railroad trains across the prairie, and he told members of his crew how he loved that part of the country. If he died, he said, he wanted to be buried there, and when it happened, they remembered.
Newspaper accounts from the time give different descriptions of Price’s job. He was a railroad conductor, they all agree, but some say he worked trains between Milton and Janesville, while others describe his route from Janesville to Milton and Madison, then on to Milwaukee and back. But wherever he worked, it seems Price was a very popular passenger train conductor. He lived with his five-year-old daughter, Harriet Louisa, in Janesville, where his mother and a widowed sister also lived. His wife was in a mental hospital in Brattleboro, Vermont.
A map of Milton Junction from 1873 shows the busy railroad junction 14 years after George E. Price’s untimely demise on the Milwaukee & Mississippi Railroad there. Reproduced from Combination Atlas Map of Rock County, Wisconsin, 1873.
The Janesville Morning Gazette reported on Wednesday, March 9, 1859, under a heading of “SERIOUS ACCIDENT,” that “George Price, Esq., the conductor of the Milton branch of the M. and M. R.R., was seriously if not fatally injured Monday evening, at Milton.” Price was working the evening train, on a passenger car being pushed by a locomotive from Janesville to Milton Junction to join the Milwaukee train there. As the short train rounded the curve in the dim light of dusk, a freight car loaded with lumber was sitting on the track. The engineer didn’t see it, but Price did, too late.
Mr. Price,” the Gazette reported in the graphic style of the day, “stepped out upon the platform to apply the brake, when the collision occurred. He was thrown with great force against the freight car. His head came in contact with an iron bar, which fractured the skull badly. The frontal bone was broken some four inches in length and two in width. The arachnoid membrane was torn, and the substance of the brain injured by the pieces of bone. He was also otherwise seriously injured.”
Other papers reported that Price’s coach struck the lumber car so violently that “seats were torn from place, hurling all 25 or 30 passengers to the floor, none of whom was injured dangerously.”
The engine raced back to Janesville, eight miles away, for medical help, and Price was taken to the home of William Morgan, owner of the local hotel and station at Milton Junction, where the Liberty Station restaurant sits today. There Dr. Henry Palmer, who became famous for his Civil War service, performed surgery. The next day, the railroad sent Dr. E.B. Wolcott, another well-known Civil War surgeon, to Milton. After examining Price, Wolcott declared, “Chances are in favor of his recovery.”
Price remained in Morgan’s home for 16 days, until March 23rd, when the newspaper said he was resting comfortably considering his injuries. “Mr. Price has been upon this road for several years, and by his gentlemanly and courteous conduct has won the esteem and friendship of all.”
But on the 23rd Price suffered a relapse, and he died with Harriet Louisa at his side. The papers don’t mention anyone else in the room, but it seems unlikely the little girl was there by herself. Price’s mother and sister survived him, and at least one was probably with her.
The railroad decorated several locomotives in Price’s memory and, on March 25, ran a special train from Milwaukee to Janesville at no charge for those who wanted to attend his funeral. That day’s Morning Gazette said there would be a prayer service at Price’s home on South Jackson Street at 2 p.m., followed by a procession to the Baptist Church, a brick building still standing at the southwest corner of Court and High Streets. Rev. E.J. Goodspeed gave the sermon, and Price’s pallbearers were five fellow passenger train conductors (D.A. Olin, E.C. Brown, E.J. Sweet, L.B. Rock, George Redington, Geo. W. Sanborn, and George Church) and the Janesville station agent (Wm. B. Strong).
This locomotive was the first in Wisconsin, built in 1848 for Milwaukee & Mississippi predecessor Milwaukee & Waukesha. The locomotive that raced to Janesville for help in 1855 would have been similar in appearance. The M&M had 43 locomotives on its roster in 1858. Photo image from WisDOT.
The locomotive of today is in stark contrast. It is nine times as heavy and burns diesel fuel instead of wood. WSOR SD40-2 4025 pauses at the burial site of George E. Price on March 23, 2009. Don Pingel photo.
The conductors had already met and approved a resolution to be published in the Janesville, Madison, and Milwaukee newspapers. It said, in part, “That while we bow in humble submission to the decree of an all-wise Creator, we still deplore deeply the loss of one whose worth had endeared him to each and all of us, and that we shall always retain in memory his many excellent qualities as a man, and as an energetic and faithful agent in the discharge of his responsible duties.”
And they said, “That in the early death of Mr. Price, we have sustained the loss of a gentleman, who by his kindness and urbane deportment invariably added to the pleasure and gratification of all who were temporarily placed under his charge, and whose promptness, energy and fidelity were fully appreciated by those whose interest it was no less his desire than his duty to subserve.”
So many people came to George Price’s funeral that hundreds couldn’t get into the church. As the Gazette told it, “An immense concourse of friends and spectators were in attendance upon his obsequies.” The “concourse” included many of the directors, officers and employees of the M & M R.R. Company, “among whom were John Catlin, President; Wm. Jervis, Superintendent; E.H. Williams, Ast. Superintendent; Wm. Taintor, Secretary; A.G. Miller, auditor; John C. Brodhead, paymaster; S.S. Merrill, superintendent of the Milwaukee & Watertown Road, together with several agents of the principal stations.
A procession accompanied Price’s body to the Janesville passenger depot, from which a special train, its engine and five passenger cars draped in black, carried Price’s body to Genesee, from where it was taken to North Prairie for burial. This presents a bit of a mystery, as the village of Genesee Depot lies three miles past North Prairie and Price’s grave, and the North Prairie station sits nearby. Perhaps in 1859 the station didn’t exist yet, but did they run the train past the burial site to a station three miles east?
Perhaps not. In 1859 the village of North Prairie was still very rural, and since it is in the Town of Genesee, the newspapers may have been referring to that. A day or two later, the Janesville Times reported, “’Tis over now. The funeral rites have been solemnized, the last said duties have been enacted, and the sod of the prairie covers the form, and lies over the noble heart of George E. Price. It needs no richly-carved marble stone to tell his many virtues, for upon the hearts of each surviving friend is engraven a record of his generous deeds that shall never be obliterated. He is dead, but his acts will live after him. And men shall recount them…and point to the newly-made grave, his last silent resting place, as the spot around which will hereafter cluster hallowed associations and many fold remembrances.”
For several days the newspapers did not let the matter rest. The Janesville Morning Gazette quoted the Madison Journal, which said, “The late George E. Price, whose accidental and melancholy death occurred at Milton early this week, was widely and favorably known as the conductor between Milton and Janesville…. Uniting integrity and assiduity with a modest, affable and obliging disposition, he was a general favorite with the traveling public, and highly esteemed and loved by his more intimate friends and associates. He leaves a wife and little daughter, a mother and a widowed sister, by whom he was greatly beloved, and who are inconsolable at his loss.”
The paper then reported how Price’s wife, “then a young mother, exhibited evidences of mental disorder, and became an inmate of an insane hospital at Brattleboro, Vt. During this long, dark, bleak period of mental obscuration, she had exhibited no affectionate recollections of home, none of husband, daughter, or friends, while his occasional visits elicited no emotion.”
However, a few hours before the accident on March 7, Price had received a letter, written by his wife, that she had completely recovered and he should come as soon as possible and take her from the hospital.
One wonders if, after all that time, Price didn’t feel some anxiety about whether it was in his and his little girl’s best interest to bring his wife to Wisconsin? We can’t know what was in his mind that day, but the paper ventured an optimistic guess:
“A few hours before the sad accident by which his life was terminated, what was his joy and surprise to learn from a letter written by her own hand, that reason had resumed her empire, and that she was anxiously awaiting his coming, affectionately urging him not to delay. Visions of returning domestic bliss for a few hours gladdened the affectionate heart of the deceased, and while hopefully contemplating a speedy and happy family reunion in their quiet home at Janesville, he was then suddenly struck down in death.”
George E. Price’s final resting place at North Prairie, Wisconsin, 150 years from the day he died. Don Pingel photo.
That is the story of the North Prairie tombstone. But mysteries remain. Was little Harriet Louisa Price’s mother released from the hospital? Or was Harriet raised by her grandmother and aunt? There are probably answers to these questions somewhere in the pages of Wisconsin history. But this, at least, we know: A man was loved by his community and coworkers enough to grant his wish to be buried along the train tracks on the prairie he loved. They believed George E. Price should not be forgotten, and they left this monument to his memory.
In honor of the 150th anniversary of George Price’s death, on March 23, 2009, the WSOR stopped its daily eastbound train “at the spot around which will hereafter cluster hallowed associations.” After a brief stop, WSOR 4025 East whistled a salute to a man who preceded them down those tracks, “a gentleman, who by his kindness and urbane deportment invariably added to the pleasure and gratification of all who were temporarily placed under his charge.”