Train wreck in Mapleway Park
It was a cold clear night on Feb. 19, 1966, 43 years ago. A Chicago Northwestern Railroad train was treading its way through Wisconsin toward Sussex, on its way to Milwaukee. At about 2:30 a.m. it passed the Sussex Depot on Maple Avenue. It was said that the crew knew there was a problem with a possible hot box in a faulty journal, connecting two cars. Just as the front part of the train cleared Maple Avenue, it derailed and sent 13 railroad cars into an accordion pile of debris where Mapleway Park is today.
Nine of the 13 cars were loaded with coke, a type of processed coal used for making steel. The coke spread across the lightly snow-covered tundra a yard thick in some places and in other places just inches thick.
Maple Avenue was closed for some time by the accident, but by early morning, cars and trucks could pass through. An estimated 50 railroad workers converged on the scene, attempting to clear the coke spill and other debris.
One must look at the landscape to fully appreciate the wreck. The land north of the tracks was depressed, a former swamp and headwaters of the Sussex Creek. This bottom muckland was considerably lower than the surrounding area and full of black peat soil that Ernie Pfeil farmed sporadically and profitably. For many years he could not farm it because of high water and the resulting mud.
He sold the land for development into the Sussex Heights subdivision, and this "hole" on the north side of the tracks was going to be filled with dirt and debris to make an outlot. It developed as a flat spot at a similar height to the adjacent Maple Avenue.
In 1978, topsoil would be added and grass planted, and in time trees and playground toys would be added. However, the southern part of the park lawn was never developed other than the lawn as it is on We Energies land for the overhead high-power electric lines. Then the land dips down to the railroad, which currently belongs to the Union Pacific Railroad. The village owns about 2 acres, and there is an additional acre that other landowners allow the village to use for park lawn.
At the site of the wreckage in 1966, the coke spillage was scraped up and reloaded into gondolas. Coke was still present for years afterward, particularly on the north side of the tracks. Occasionally, people would scavenge for the coke to possibly use for home heating, but today there is nothing left. The addition of new ballast and the dumping of debris has now hidden most evidence of the accident, though a 50-foot section of steel rail still sits in the nearby tall weeds. At 100 pounds per foot, the rail would weigh more than 5,000 pounds. It is possible that it belongs to the derailment wreckage.
Sussex Mills was contacted to furnish a truck driver and truck to help move the 56-pound boxed butter that was in two box cars. Railroad employees handled the boxed butter, loading the mill truck and repacked onto a box car at the Sussex Depot.
I happened to be the truck driver, and I was shadowed by a railroad detective who watched over the entire transporting of the butter. In the end there were two cartons of the butter that were squashed open, with debris embedded inside. I thought that the detective would throw them on the side of the loading dock, abandoning them as unfit for consumption. I figured that if he threw them away, I could salvage them, cut off the damaged part and have butter for a year. But the detective wrapped up the boxes in paper and tape and put them in the outgoing cars with a proper note attached.
By Monday afternoon, Feb. 21, 1966, the wreck and debris were cleaned up. Today, only old photographs and memories are left of the early morning wreck. At the accident scene many years ago, a small boy told a reporter that his grandmother had heard something in the night but thought they were switching trains. Longtime Sussex resident Joyce Egle found five old slides she had taken of the wreck and gave them to the historical society.
Today, when you are walking along the far western Mapleway Park trail that goes from Maple Avenue to Waukesha Avenue and the Bug Line Trail, look at the peaceful site immediately south of the park and imagine 13 smashed up railroad cars and piles of coke spread over the landscape.