Mysteries, histories and family sagas

Edward Peltier and Arta Comstock wedding photo, 1906. (Courtesy photo)

Many genealogists consider themselves to be family history detectives, drawn by the need to solve the puzzle of who their ancestors were. Sometimes relatives appear or disappear like magic. Other times there are vague rumors of a tragedy or scandal that no one wants to discuss. Answers can be found sleuthing through clue after clue both in online databases and in dusty old records tucked away in a research library or courthouse.

MRHC Board Member Judy Vonck recently told me an interesting story about one of her discoveries while volunteering in the John M. Longyear Research Library some years ago. Judy came in already knowing the name of her great-grandfather, Edward Peltier. She knew that he had died in some type of railroad accident when her grandmother was just two years old, but the details had been lost over the years.

Using her grandmother’s age, she guessed that the accident had happened around 1907-1910. Judy and the then librarian, Rosemary Michelin, pulled out the railroad accident book. After looking through the book, they discovered that Edward had died on June 29, 1909, in Negaunee. With the date, they were able to find the newspaper coverage of the incident, consisting of five articles in The Mining Journal over several days.

The following day, the account of the accident began “Shocking Fatality at Railway Crossing: Consolidated Fuel & Lumber Company’s Employe [sic] Lost His Life While Trying to Save His Team on Pioneer Avenue Yesterday Morning.” Edward had just picked up a wagon load of wood and stopped at the company office to pick up the delivery slip. While he was inside, his horses got loose and started across the adjacent railroad track.

Edward grabbed the reins and attempted to pull the horses and wagon off the tracks as a Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul passenger train approached from Marquette. One of the closest witnesses, Flagman Rasmussen, who guarded the railroad crossing, thought that Peltier did not realize how close the train was to the intersection.

The train hit between the horses and the wagon on the side opposite Edward. The force of the impact pushed the wagon on top of Edward, and he was caught under the locomotive. Edward died instantly but his body was dragged over 100 feet and badly mutilated.

Both horses were dragged for some distance by the cowcatcher before being pushed to the north side of the tracks. They both survived the initial accident and were able to walk back to the stable, but one horse was put down due to its injuries.

Judy felt that the description of her great-grandfather in the article allowed her to get to know him on a personal level. “The deceased, who was a son-in-law of D.S. Comstock, the liveryman, was well known and popular. He came here with Mr. Comstock at the time the latter purchased Hakenjos’ livery business and had been employed by his father-in-law or the Consolidated Fuel & Lumber company ever since. He was one of the company’s most trustworthy men, being industrious and capable. He was about twenty-seven years of age and is survived by his wife and three small children.”

Investigation found that it took the train 135 feet from the point of impact to come to a stop. This fact along with witness testimony lead the coroner’s inquest to conclude that the train had been speeding. Edward’s father intended to seek damages from the railroad, but the newspaper did not report on the outcome of the lawsuit.

The accident also started a discussion of railroad crossing safety, as the presence of the crossing guard Rasmussen had failed to prevent the accident. A follow up article stated “Many expressed the opinion that the railway companies should be required to provide gates at the Pioneer, Silver, and Gold street crossings, all of which are dangerous. Many serious accidents have been narrowly averted at all of these crossings, and during the past three years, three drivers have lost their lives.”

There was also a touching thank you message from Edward’s widow, Arta, in the newspaper, “To the many kind friends who have endeavored to assuage the great sorrow which has come upon me so suddenly, I return my most heartfelt thanks. There were so many kind deeds done for us in these dark hours that I shall probably never have personal knowledge of all of them and cannot hope to return thanks individually, but to all I give assurance of my deep appreciation…”

Using additional records such as marriage certificates and federal censuses, we can see that there were a few incorrect details in the newspaper reports. Edward Peltier was just 24 years old when he died. He and his 19-year-old wife, Arta, had been married a little less than three years and had two young daughters, Gladys, age 2 and Risper, age 6 months. Arta remarried in September 1911 to Wilbert Contois, leaving her young children in the care of her parents. Arta and Wibert went on to have an additional seven children, two daughters and five sons.

Are you looking to tear down your own genealogical brick wall? Have a family history mystery that needs solving? To learn more about researching genealogical mysteries as well as compiling, preserving, and sharing digital family trees, join the Marquette Regional History Center for The Modern Family Tree tonight at 6:30 p.m. As part of National Library Preservation Week, we will present digital formats and techniques that work for preserving original documents, and how to work with metadata. We will also discuss genetic genealogy. $5 suggested donation. Call 906-226-3571 for more info or visit marquettehistory.org.


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