Week 28: #52 Ancestors – Transportation
By Eilene Lyon
I just discovered that The Putterer and I both have an ancestor who died in a similar gruesome fashion: having legs severed by a railcar. Adding to the coincidence, both of these ancestors were German immigrants and their birth names were Carl. I’ve previously told the story of Carl Heinrich Gaszow, my 3rd great-grandfather who died in Milwaukee in 1863.
The Putterer’s 2nd great-grandfather is Charles George Wulff. Carl Georg Wulff was born March 15, 1847 in Saxony, Germany.1 In 1873, he immigrated with his wife, Anna, and their baby girl, Wilhelmina (Minnie).2 Anna’s maiden name is given variously as Berhn, Bruhn, Bruns, and Bouhn. Charles received his naturalization papers on November 4, 1884.3
The Wulff family lived for a few years in St. Louis, then settled permanently in Rock Island, Illinois. They lived most of that time at 2104 Fourth Ave., which is in the older, industrial northern section of the city. Charles worked as a cigar manufacturer and had a barn and cigar store at that location.4 He and Anna had a total of ten children, but several died very young.
It is Charles’s later life and death that connects him to some interesting Rock Island history. Anna died in 1896 and he did not remarry. He continued to live at the Fourth Ave. address for many years, but by 1905 he had relocated to an area known as Sears (now part of South Rock Island).5
His son, William G. Wulff, lived near the intersection of 9th Street and the Watch Tower Road (Route 5), across the street from Luchmann’s saloon. This intersection lay on the line of the Tri City Railway running from Rock Island at the north, to Milan, across the Rock River from Searstown.
Searstown, or Sears, was named for David Benton Sears, the first person to put a dam on the Mississippi River at what is now the southeast end of Arsenal Island and Moline, Illinois. He and several partners ran grist and saw mills with the power supplied by the dam.6
Many years and adventures later, Sears sold his developments to the government and bought land just north of the Rock River and platted the town that bore his name. In 1881, he built a large home for himself and his fourth wife, east of town, overlooking the river. After Sears’s death, this home was used for a time as apartments, and that is where Charles G. Wulff resided in his final years.7
Concurrent with the development of these cities on the Mississippi, railcar lines connected them providing convenient and comfortable transportation. Originally horses pulled the individual cars, but eventually electricity replaced the animals.
In 1882, Bailey Davenport purchased the Rock Island and Milan Steam and Horse Railway Company. Ridership tended to be low on weekends, so he developed a recreation area along the Rock River, east of the Sears home, that became known as Watch Tower Park. People enjoyed having someplace to spend their leisure time, and the transportation to get there. The name derives from the Sauk tribe’s watch tower—all this area around Sears was once the home of the tribe.8
Davenport’s park and rail company were bought out by Chicago businessmen. They merged several rail lines into the Tri City Railway. The company developed Watch Tower Park in the 1890s and early 20th century as the first amusement park west of the Windy City. Park entrance was free with the purchase of a trolley ticket. It thrived until WWI and the rise of the automobile, which enabled people to travel just about anywhere for their entertainment.
On his last extant day on earth, September 25, 1908, Charles G. Wulff spent his time serving on a grand jury in Rock Island. His friends wanted him to stay in town to watch fireworks, but he decided to return to the Sears house to relax instead. On the way, he stopped at Luchmann’s for a drink, staying only 20 minutes or so. Then he grabbed his lantern and began walking the Watch Tower tracks toward home. William Wulff, on his porch with friends, watched him go.9
“A few minutes later he saw two street car men running at full speed get on board the Milan car and start off as fast as the car could go.” Wulff and his friends “started up the tracks to see what it was [that had happened]. When half way there they met a man who told Wulff that his father was hurt and Wulff hurried to his side.”10
The Watch Tower rail car had run Charles over and severed his right leg and inflicted other injuries. Though he was treated soon after the accident by a doctor and transported by ambulance to St. Anthony’s hospital for surgery, he never revived. Blood loss and shock had taken their toll.11
A scenic and popular area attraction, which should have provided a delightful backdrop for Charles’s retirement years instead became the means of his end. In 1927, the Sears home and Watch Tower Park were purchased by the State of Illinois and are now part of Black Hawk State Historic Site.
Feature image: Postcard showing the entrance to the Black Hawk Watch Tower Inn, Rock Island, Ill. (Digital Research Library of Illinois)
- Charles G. Wulff. Year: 1900; Census Place: Rock Island Ward 5, Rock Island, Illinois; Page: 2; Enumeration District: 0118; FHL microfilm: 1240339 – via Ancestry.com. AND “Hit by a car; Death follows.” Rock Island Argus, September 26, 1908, p. 6 – via Newspapers.com. ↩
- 1900 Census ↩
- Charles G. Wulff. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); Washington, D.C.; Soundex Index to Naturalization Petitions for the United States District and Circuit Courts, Northern District of Illinois and Immigration and Naturalization Service District 9, 1840-1950 (M1285); Microfilm Serial: M1285; Microfilm Roll: 176 – via Ancestry.com. ↩
- 1900 census; Stone’s Rock Island City Directory, 1901, p. 371 – via Ancestry.com. AND “A Fierce Fire” Rock Island Argus, August 4 1892, p. 5 – via Newspapers.com. ↩
- Stone’s Rock Island City Directory, 1905, p. 405 – via Ancestry.com. ↩
- Carvey, Beth. “History Corner: David Sears House” downloaded from https://www.blackhawkpark.org/docs/DavidSearsHouse.pdf AND Sears, David Benton. “David B. Sears, Pioneer in the Development of the Water Power of the Mississippi River: Biographical Sketch of David B. Sears, Pioneer in the Development and Utilization of the Water Power of the Mississippi and Its Tributaries: Compiled Mainly from Data Supplied by His Son, David Sears, of Sears, Illinois.” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (1908-1984) 8, no. 2 (1915): 300-15. Accessed August 13, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40194308. ↩
- “Hit by a car; Death follows.” see Note 1. ↩
- https://drloihjournal.blogspot.com/2019/12/watchtower-amusement-park-rock-island-illinois.html ↩
- “Hit by a car; Death follows.” see Note 1. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid. ↩