Watch Tower Wreck

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.

A Watch Tower rail car, date unknown. (Digital Research Library of Illinois)

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

David Benton Sears

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.

Tri City Railway car circa 1903. (rigov.org)

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

Google Earth image of Rock Island, Illinois, showing where Charles G. Wulff lived prior to 1905, the Sears House where he lived from then until his death, and the estimated location of his fatal encounter with the Watch Tower rail car. Click to enlarge.

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)

 


  1. 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. 
  2. 1900 Census 
  3. 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. 
  4. 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. 
  5. Stone’s Rock Island City Directory, 1905, p. 405 – via Ancestry.com. 
  6. 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. 
  7. “Hit by a car; Death follows.” see Note 1. 
  8. https://drloihjournal.blogspot.com/2019/12/watchtower-amusement-park-rock-island-illinois.html 
  9. “Hit by a car; Death follows.” see Note 1. 
  10. Ibid. 
  11. Ibid. 

41 thoughts on “Watch Tower Wreck

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  1. I like learning about the development of any form of transportation because we take them all for granted– and they had to start with someone, somewhere. As for the gruesome death… oh my, what an awful way to die.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. While researching Cobalt in the 1900s, I am astonished by the number of reports I read of death or dismemberment by rail car. Editors left out not one scrap of colourful detail. Ugh.

    Especially surprising are the accounts of people who were killed when walking on the tracks. Did they not hear the train approaching?

    Clearly, these tragedies occurred everywhere, including TWICE in your family!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It mystifies me, too, that they don’t get out of the way. I’ve read some rather detailed accounts, too. I actually have a third railcar death in the tree and maybe more that I’m not aware of!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. What a horrible fate and all it took was a split second for it to happen. It was a rough life as you said in your last post and I’m sure many people never lived to be a ripe old age. Many years ago, my first Summer of working while in college, I heard the scream of sirens for at least an hour – it was not far from the diner where I worked and we used to provide the prisoner meals for those people that were spending the day/evening in jail. So we had several police officers rotated to come pick up the food. I remarked about all the sirens and it was a man crossed around the railroad gate and lost his life and I later learned it was a good friend’s father who had died. I am Canadian and enjoyed riding the streetcars when we visited Toronto.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a shame about your friend’s father. I wonder why he went around the gate? People get in such a hurry to go places. I drive the speed limit on lovely country roads and people zoom past me all the time. What’s the rush?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, I wonder why he did that Eileen, though he is not the first one. Two years ago I was out in the country and headed to a sunflower festival. I had written the directions to a “T” and got to a fork in the road, which was not in the Google map directions. Someone behind me pulled up and laid on the horn. I took the right fork and was wrong, but, all was not lost as I spent a delightful morning driving out in the country in early September. I remembered going for Sunday drives with my parents so many times to visit those roadside stands for late Summer produce, especially beefsteak tomatoes. I enjoyed the drive and discovered another Metropark in the process.

        I hate that everyone is in a hurry all the time. We have all these freeway shootings in Detroit which is about 15 miles from where I live. Some of it is just shooting for the sport of it, some involve road rage and over the weekend, we had a woman who was driving too slow on the expressway and someone shot her. She exited the expressway and he followed her, shooting more. Poor woman will likely never drive an expressway again.

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      2. The first story is nice – all who wander are not lost. My husband thinks if I can’t drive directly to where I’m going that I should stop and ask for directions (pre Google map days). Nonsense. I’m exploring the area!

        The second part of your tale is just downright awful.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I like your way of thinking Eilene. 🙂 I need to get GPS as I don’t have a smartphone … maybe when I’m retired. I am not good with directions, but it was a wonderful day and unbelievably the Metropark where I ended up was in the same zipcode! I like that quote and somewhere in my blog I’ve used it before. I will celebrate 10 years of my walking regimen in a few weeks and I think I will use it again. Thanks for mentioning that expression and refreshing my memory What’s going on in Detroit is awful right now. I bought a state park pass as I wanted to visit Detroit’s Belle Isle – I haven’t been there since 1973 when I walked in the March of Dimes March for Babies in my senior year in high school But I’m not going to go now – another time perhaps, when people are less hot headed and the rage that permeates the City is quelled.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Yes, me too Eilene. We moved here in 1966, the year before the Detroit riots. Friends of the family called us and said “how far away are you as we are seeing horrible images on the news?” I’ve not been to Detroit since I worked on site in 2009 (I’ve worked from home the last ten years) but I understand there are still parts of Detroit, fairly close to Downtown proper, that are burned-out buildings that are standing to this day.

        Liked by 1 person

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