Competition amongst growing cities on the Midwestern frontier could be fierce.
Throughout the 1800’s, towns vied with one another for their successes. Successful farmers, businessman, and manufacturers became leading citizens and politicians, having every interest in making their towns and regions thrive. Some wanted to make their mark on the world and leave their name as a lasting legacy, while others just wanted to make money.
Regardless of their reasons, they put years into the development of their towns and cities. Some were more successful than others. Perhaps the most successful ones were areas that already had something that gave them a natural edge.
In the case of Superior, Wisconsin, it was access to one of the Great Lakes.
Superior started life as a French trading post on the south side of a natural harbor on Lake Superior. Over the years, the population of the area grew, with several Scandinavians settling there. By 1889 it had obtained a city charter, and continued to grow and develop from there, eventually developing some of the biggest shipping facilities for grains and ore in the entire world.
As Superior grew, smaller towns in the area also began to spring up and grow as well. With Superior being the bigger town, many residents would make trips there to shop, seek entertainment, and conduct business dealings.
While the natural harbor and the subsequent lake shipping traffic had allowed the region to reach the heights that it did, by the late 1800’s the railroad was the undisputed king of overland transportation.
An ever-growing network of reliable railroads had been linked all over the United States, allowing both goods and people to travel across the county with unprecedented ease. For the people of Saunders, just about eight miles from Superior, the train must have seemed like a godsend.
Eight miles doesn’t seem that far, but try walking or taking a wagon through it in the pouring rain or the blazing hot sun. The train spared travelers from all of that, and was a lot faster besides.
So it was in early June 1907 that several people were patiently waiting for the train at the Saunders depot. Some sat, most probably stood, talking about the weather and sharing local gossip that they had heard.
As they waited, some of them had noticed a man walking towards the railroad track some distance away. Some of them might have known him as William Waite, a man described as a “woodsman.” Unfortunately, we don’t know what exactly that entails.
By Merriam-Webster’s definition, a woodsman is “ a person who frequents or works in the woods….” He could have been a professional lumberjack, or perhaps Waite was a professional hunter who sold pelts, game, and fish locally. Or maybe he was just someone who wanted to be left alone, and so lived in the woods away from society.
Whatever it was Waite did exactly is irrelevant. What we do know is that he had a use for the railroad that day.
Quietly, Waite walked up to the train track. Finding a comfortable spot, he knelt down on the ground in front of it. As the train began to make its way into the depot to pick up the assembled crowd, Waite seized his chance.
Taking a firm grip on the rail, he lowered himself forward and laid his neck across it.
He was far enough away that no one in the crowd could come to his rescue. The train, while slow by today’s standards, was still travelling fast enough that there was no way it could stop in time to miss him.
When the locomotive engineer saw the man lying across the track, he pulled the brake as hard as he could. The train lurched, but the hard steel wheels kept rolling, passing effortlessly through William Waite’s neck, severing his head.
The crowd watched, horrified. They wanted to help, but there there was nothing else that they could do but stare. The authorities were called, and a brief investigation launched. No one could find a motive for Waite’s suicide.
Was there a broken romance? Was he getting sick with something that would force him to change his lifestyle? Had Waite decided that 45 was old enough and simply decided to end it all? Investigators were unable to answer any of those questions.
William Waite left behind a horrible memory for the crowd at Saunders Depot that day, but took his motives with him to the grave.
Superior, Wisconsin. www.u-s-history.com
Thrusts Head Under Engine. The Superior Times, 6/8/1907