Unconventional Historian will be going on a brief hiatus this week and will be returning on November 17th with an article about M.M. Secor, one of Racine’s most colorful and controversial characters and one of our most prolific mayors.
Unconventional Historian will be going on a brief hiatus this week and will be returning on November 17th with an article about M.M. Secor, one of Racine’s most colorful and controversial characters and one of our most prolific mayors.
“Orphanage”. The word brings to mind images of miserable unwanted children and rampant abuse. In Racine however, those that know of the Taylor Home Orphanage think of hundreds of happy children and the dedicated charitable hearts of its founding couple, the Taylors. The Taylor Home was a beloved place and many who lived there recall a past full of fun, laughs, simple comforts, and caring staff. Still, these happy times do not change the fact that many believe the site of the old orphanage is haunted by someone or something. I happened to have a unique opportunity of joining a paranormal team in their investigation of the former site of the orphanage and learned quite a bit about the alleged paranormal occurrences and experienced a few strange happenings myself during the night I spent there. It’s difficult to say for sure if the site is truly haunted, but today we’ll explore the history of the Taylor Home before we delve into the stories of the supernatural.
The Taylor Home was founded by Issac and Emerline Taylor for the purpose of giving orphans the “chance to grow, be happy, and enter community life on sound footing.” The idea for creating an orphanage came from Issac Taylor, who had been an orphan himself. As a child, he was often mistreated by many of his male caretakers and he made the decision that if he ever had the money that he would create his own orphanage to be a better place for children to grow up. Issac died in November of 1865 of pneumonia, but his wife Emerline continued in his footsteps. Emerline too ended up passing away a year after Issac, but her will had created a future for the orphanage Issac had dreamed of. After her death, 38 acres of farmland were bought to place the orphanage on, south of Racine’s city limits. Construction began in 1868 and was completed in 1872, the official opening took place on July 17th, 1872, Mrs. Taylor’s birthday.
The orphanage was self-sufficient, subsisting off of an endowment Mrs. Taylor had left when she died, as well as growing their own fruits and vegetables and raising livestock like cows, chickens, and pigs. Most of their homegrown and raised food was on the dinner table each night, but they also sold the excess of their labors back to the community. Children were usually placed in the care of the orphanage due of the loss of one or more parent from disease, war, poverty, and—most commonly—tuberculosis. The Taylor Home children enjoyed entertainment and events like ice cream socials, magic shows, fairs, concerts, and open houses, cementing its exceptional reputation with the Racine community. In the years that the Taylor Home served as an orphanage, over 1,000 children passed through its doors living the exact kind of life Issac Taylor had hoped they would. The fate of the Taylor Home was unsure for a brief time in 1955 when the state of Wisconsin passed legislation that closed down orphanages in favor of foster care and social welfare, but the Taylor Home adapted.
The Taylor Home abandoned the orphanage model and moved their focus to becoming an institution that cared for the mentally disturbed and troubled youth—dubbed “psychological orphans” at the time. Kearns, who was in charge of the Taylor Home when it made the transition, believed that a child “needs to understand his own negative behavior rather than becoming resentful and trying to ‘get back at society’ for what he thinks life has done to him.” It was this philosophy that the Taylor Home adopted in an effort to aid troubled children and help the return to a normal life. Five cottage-style buildings were built on the grounds, starting in the 60s, and these buildings gradually replaced the original building. For a short time children that were part of the residential and day-care programs would dine in the old Taylor Home building, but by 1973 all construction of the cottages was complete and the original building was razed, leaving only the cottages on the grounds.
Notably, there were a few deaths at the orphanage. Three caretakers died there over the years, including Nellie Jane Wright, Medora Roskilly, and Nora Harnett. Nellie Jane Wright lived in the orphanage nearly her whole life, arriving there in 1873. Her records listed her as a “little lame girl” due to her limp and crutch. The orphanage soon became Nellie’s favorite place to be and she enjoyed her time there so much she never left, staying there for 60 years. She continued to work at the orphanage even after she grew up by becoming a caretaker for the children. She befriended many of them and was beloved by nearly everyone. Nellie stayed at the Taylor Home until 1933 when she died of a heart attack. Dying in similar circumstances, Medora Roskilly, a supervisor of the Taylor Home, passed at the age of 62 of a heart attack in 1952. Fire and Rescue squads had been called to the Taylor Home, but she had already died before they arrived. She had been working there since 1946.
The death of Nora Harnett in 1899 was the most bizarre, though she did not die on the orphanage grounds. Nora worked at the orphanage as a domestic and was well-liked by her employers there. Though it was unsuspected until after her death, Nora was thought to be possibly psychologically disturbed. It wasn’t until one April day when she was walking down Sixth Street that she swallowed two ounces of carbolic acid and took her own life. She left three letters, one to her mother, one to a man to deliver the letter to her mother, and one to her employer at the orphanage. What she wrote to her employer is unknown.
Tragedies aside, the Taylor Home holds a special place in the Racine community. The Taylor Home officially ended its programs in the early 2000s, but it was not forgotten. In 2015 while walking the grounds Wendy Spencer found a large marble slab lying face down around where the old orphanage building once stood. It turned out to be the plaque that once adorned the building before it’s demolition. With the help of the community, a monument was erected on the old Taylor Home site, the marble slab being the centerpiece of the memorial. Currently, the Taylor Home site is privately owned and houses various institutions including the administration of the village of Elmwood Park. It is also what some believe to be a paranormal hot spot.
This volume of Paranormal Points of Racine County is a special one. Reports of ghostly activity on the site have centered mostly within a school that occupied one of the newer cottages. To accommodate the growing student population the school planned to relocate to a larger building and preparations for the move began in June of 2018. With the impending move, staff at the school saw an opportunity to call in a team of investigators to explore some of the alleged paranormal activity they had experienced. I was personally invited to come along and participate in the investigation and serve as a consulting historian. Prior to the investigation I researched the location. the above report is a summary of my findings. On June 15, 2018 I arrived at the Taylor Home site and met some staff from the school and the Paranormal Investigators of Milwaukee (PIM). Before the investigation began, we did a walkthrough of the building and were informed of the various paranormal incidents that have occurred throughout the building.
Staff sitting at the front desk in the lobby of the building have often heard the sounds of running footsteps in the hallway to the side of the desk, sometimes even accompanied by the sounds of giggling and the rustling of the papers hung on the walls, like someone is running by at top speed. The noises have also been heard on the walkie-talkies while only staff is present. Near the lobby a teacher was working inside during recess when she heard the voice of a child ask, “Can I go?” At first, she responded, assuming it was a child that had been left behind in the building, ready to go out for recess, but she realized moments later no one was there.
Many of the incidents have occurred in room 23, a classroom on the first floor of the building. One afternoon, around 1pm when classes had finished for the day, a teacher in room 23 felt as if there was a presence in the hall outside of her door. She got up and shut the door but after she sat back down she heard the paper decorations on the outside of her door rustling as if someone was running their fingers up and down them. She then saw a beam of yellowish light sweep beneath the door, similar to a flashlight beam, before it suddenly disappeared. Frightened, the teacher stayed in the room for several hours before she left. The same teacher reported that she and her students have heard knocks on the door while it was open. A student got up to answer the door, but no one was there. The same teacher also has had chairs fly off onto the ground after being carefully stacked on the tables at the end of the day. While the teacher is out sometimes other staff have reported hearing furniture moving around in the room but when they investigate it appears as if nothing has moved. In the hall outside of room 23 a black shapeless shadow has been seen darting around the hall on multiple occasions.
Outside of the school, multiple teachers have spotted a woman through one of the front windows of the building’s first floor. The woman is wearing a blouse with a tall collar and ruffled front with her hair tied back into a neat and tight bun. The entity seems to be friendly, leading staff members to speculate that she may be the spirit of Mrs. Taylor, back to check on the children. One teacher’s young son, around 3 at the time of the incident, was sitting in the back of the car outside the building with a sibling. He began to make faces out the window towards the school and when asked about who he was making faces at he said he was playing with the little boy he saw in the window.
No haunted location would be complete without creepy basement stories, and the Taylor Home site has plenty. Once, a teacher was alone in one of the basement classrooms when she began to feel uneasy. The uneasiness turned into an uncontrollable sadness and she began to cry. The feelings stayed with her the entire time she was at the school, following her until she passed the stoplights on Durand and Taylor Avenues, when they abruptly stopped. , but one particular incident in the basement stood out. While teaching, one of the teachers felt something touch her back and jolted a little. One of her students noticed and asked, “Did it get ya?” For three weeks the teacher had back spasms around the area she had been touched.
The storage room in the basement is also host to a few strange incidents, including the lights frequently turning on and off, a general feeling of oppressiveness reported by those who have entered the room, and once a door slammed shut behind a staff member entering the room to gather supplies for a project. almost like water running through the plumbing despite the fact that no one is in the bathrooms. Early one morning a teacher was in room 222 to prep for class when she started to hear her door handle rattling from the inside of the open door. When she looked over it was not moving, but after a few minutes, she heard another doorknob rattling across the hall, outside of the room. When she looked up again a door that had been closed when she arrived was now wide open, before it suddenly slammed shut.
After listening to the staff and their stories, PIM began the investigation. There is nothing quite like being in an empty school building after dark. While I was there several minor incidents occurred, mostly small noises that were left unexplained. The investigation team went to great lengths to come up with plausible explanations for many of the incidents, but some were left unknown. During controlled silences, we heard the sound of a soft female voice whispering something and a chair shifting near room 23. In the basement, we heard many other shifting noises along with creaking and shuffling sounds—some which could be attributed to the building settling, while others seemed too distinct. One of the staff members that was there heard a series of three short breaths in front of her face while sitting in the basement classroom, but it was not recorded on any audio, as she was sitting a distance away from the members with recording devices.
It was nearing midnight when the strangest incident occurred. we were in the second basement classroom when we heard a very loud thud from upstairs that sounded similar to something heavy falling, or maybe a large textbook being dropped in the middle of the floor. A storm was starting to roll in but the rain and wind had not yet picked up and the sound was very unlike that of thunder. The team quickly made their way upstairs but the source of the noise was never determined. As the storm began to roll in, faint knocks could be heard from various parts of the building but definite sources could not be discerned, though the storm may have been the cause. The storm eventually became too loud to continue the investigation any further and we dispersed after the equipment was taken down. From that night I cannot say for sure that the Taylor Home site is haunted, but I can say the experience was unsettling and I heard many unexplained sounds that left me wondering.
Cemeteries and other burial grounds have a long history of being considered sacred sites to humankind. The places where we put our loved ones to rest hold deep significance to our funerary rituals and beliefs in the afterlife. Unfortunately, these sites can be forgotten or deteriorate as time goes on and they are forgotten. They are not always given the reverence and care that would be assumed of such a site. Doing research on supposed haunted locations in Racine County I ran across three sites that shared a similar history and have chosen to write about these three sites for my first volume of Racine’s paranormal locations.
Formerly Racine’s first official cemetery
Racine’s first official cemetery was established in 1842 between current-day 13th and 14th Streets and College and Villa Streets. It was simply known as “the Old Cemetery” by residents of the village during the pioneer days of Racine. Little is known about the site itself, but one of the first residents to be interred in the cemetery was supposedly a man who died of consumption, a disease the plagued early Racine. Much more is known about the cemetery’s fate than the cemetery itself. Not long after the cemetery was established, the land was set to become the site of the future Third Ward School.
Several hundred bodies had been buried in the Old Cemetery and had to be exhumed before the school was constructed, most being moved to Mound Cemetery or nearby Evergreen Cemetery. Notice, written by city clerk J. Redburn, was given via Racine’s newspaper in 1853:
Notice is hereby given to all those having an interest, that in accordance with a resolution passed by the City Council of the City of Racine, November 7th, 1852, all the bodies buried in the Old Cemetery must be resolved by the 1st day of January 1854.
The Third Ward School was constructed along with two other schools, known as the Fourth and Fifth Ward Schools, after Racine’s original schools began to run out of space. In 1855 money was raised to establish them and in 1856 they were completed. Later they would be known as Winslow, Janes, and Garfield Elementary School, respectively. The original buildings were designed by Lucas Bradley, brother-in-law of Horatio Gates Winslow, and were constructed of cream city brick and limestone in an “Italianate style” at a cost of $4,500. In 1899 expansions were made to the buildings by James G. Chandler and very little of the old building’s exterior remained. The building was instead constructed in a Victorian and castle-like manner. It was in use for over a century and a half and went through many additions during its lifespan.
Although the architecture and history of Winslow are interesting in their own right, Racine residents were far more fascinated by the history of the lot as a cemetery. Residents who had loved ones buried in the original cemetery and could no longer find their remains were especially interested in the ex-cemetery. During construction of many nearby homes over the years since the cemetery was converted, homeowners began to find bones on their property. It seemed that while exhuming the bodies in 1853 they missed a few. The number of bones found near the lot is unknown but at least two complete skeletons have been found over the course of Winslow’s history. Even children who attended the school were aware of the lot’s history, occasionally finding bones in the school yard and referring to the water that came out of the pump on the lot as “skeleton juice.” Over the years paranormal occurrences have also been reported at the site, including the nearby hospital, St. Luke’s.
Patients staying at St. Luke’s have reported strange occurrences during their overnight stays; from creepy sounds to handprints and writing appearing on windows after they had just been cleaned to showers and sinks turning on by themselves in patient bathrooms. Those who have worked at St. Luke’s have had even more experiences with the haunts of the site, including hearing voices and seeing shadowy figures roaming the halls when they thought they were alone. One third shift employee was in the kitchen when everything began to go off including the alarms, steamers, ovens, and lights before the power went out completely. Another employee who worked third shift experienced multiple patient deaths during her time working at St. Luke’s. Often times patients would claim to see Jesus, or other ethereal beings before their death and when patients died it was common practice among staff to open all the doors and windows in a room to make sure their souls would not become trapped. Almost all employees who reported strange happenings worked third shift and agreed that the kitchen was a hot spot between 1:00am and 4:00am.
Winslow School itself was also home to many paranormal occurrences, that both students and staff witnessed over the many years it was in operation. Staff said it often felt like they were being watched when completely alone in a room, or that while walking through the hall they would pass through an unusually cold spot. Orbs have also been repeatedly sighted all over the building. In 2009, right after receiving new computers students were playing with the webcams and taking pictures of themselves. After going through the photos, a teacher said she saw a young child she did not recognize in the background of one of the photos. It was a young girl with dark hair in long braids and a dress that appeared to be made from animal hide. Before she could send the photo, the computer crashed and everything on it was lost.
Formerly Racine College and Evergreen Cemetery
Evergreen Cemetery was dedicated on June 12, 1851 and the first burial at the cemetery was reportedly in 1852. The cemetery was established along the scenic Lake Michigan, close to the water below. No official records of the cemetery’s burials were kept until 1870 and those that were kept afterward were destroyed in Racine’s infamous Blaze of 1882. Shortly after the first burial the charter for Racine College, an all boy’s school, was granted. Today we know the site as the DeKoven Center, named after James DeKoven, a warden and president at the school who, after his unfortunate death in 1879, was buried on the site near St. John’s Chapel—his favorite building. The college was to share a border with Evergreen on the southeastern corner of the lot.
After Mound Cemetery was opened, it the newly preferred burying grounds in Racine County and Evergreen began to fall into disrepair and neglect. The property was sold at one point to Daniel Bull for the purposes of farming, and it was his responsibility to exhume and relocate the bodies on the property, but only 76, of what was assumed to be originally hundreds, were found.
The cemetery began to become a problem when vandals went after the remaining headstones and medical students from Milwaukee and Chicago robbed some of the graves for cadavers. Students from Racine College would also frequent the property, and on one occasion a 12-year old student was injured when part of the embankment fell out from beneath him. After he was rescued the students found a coffin jutting out of the side of the land and pried the bottom open. A complete skeleton was discovered and the college took possession of the bones and burned them. Seeing coffins jutting out of the side of the embankment and bodies falling into the lake became common-place.
In the late 1920s a battle over the fate of the abandoned Evergreen Cemetery began. The parties involved with the most authority over the site were Racine College and the town of Mt. Pleasant. Both had different ideas for how to handle the ill-kept site. Racine College wanted to clean up the property since it shared a border with the school and there was a lack of any supervision of the site. Mt. Pleasant, on the other hand, wanted to take ownership of the land to turn it into a park. They believed it would add a more beautiful landscape to the sewage plant that was being built nearby. This problem would not be an issue for very long however, as a majority of the site became washed away by the lake, leaving little of the original land behind. Family members of those who had been buried at Evergreen were never notified if their loved ones were reburied elsewhere, or if their body was one of the unlucky souls that would become a victim to Lake Michigan.
Though the cemetery no longer exists on DeKoven Center’s border, it has not been forgotten. In 1984 sand was brought from the sewage plant and hauled to a lot on the 5300 block of Wind Point Road. It was to be used in construction for a new home. During construction the crew found a human skull, pelvis, and other bones in the pile of sand. The bones were speculated to be from Evergreen Cemetery since they were over 100 years old. The unfortunate homeowners thought that would be the end of their taste of Evergreen Cemetery, but 33 years later they found out that would not be the case. Late November of 2017 the owners of the home began digging to widen their driveway. While digging they found a human jawbone with several of the teeth still attached, multiple ribs, an arm bone, and many other bone fragments. They contacted the Racine County Sheriff to find out that these bones were also likely from Evergreen, from the same sand deposit they had used on the lot years earlier. That being said, it’s no wonder why so many believe that the DeKoven Center and the surrounding area are haunted.
One resident of the DeKoven area moved into her home a mere two blocks away from the center. Oftentimes she would hear footsteps and doors opening and closing around the home after her family had already gone to bed. Strange noises aren’t particularly uncommon in old homes like the ones built around DeKoven, but this homeowner and her husband both saw apparitions in their home. One was of an old woman standing in the bedroom doorway and another was of a union soldier in the basement, an experience her son also claimed to have had. After talking with a neighbor, she found out that she was not the first resident to see the soldier’s apparition in the area. Other homeowners nearby have experienced opening and closing doors and appliances turning on and off, as well as the unnerving feeling of being watched at night.
Apparitions and other-worldly occurrences have also been reported on DeKoven’s grounds. A woman wearing a wedding dress can sometimes be seen among the trees at night and some who have visited for weddings have reported cold spots and seeing apparitions in the garden and surrounding grounds. A woman who lived in the gatehouse at DeKoven had several auditory experiences. The woman was often plagued by the sounds of old flute music, footsteps running up and down her apartment stairs, or the sound of doors being slammed shut. When she walked her dog around at night near the closed gymnasium she could hear gym shoes squeaking on the wooden floors and basketballs being bounced on the floor. The presence apparently even tied her shoelaces and vacuum cord in knots once.
Formerly Gatliff/Racine County Insane Asylum, High Ridge Hospitals, County Home/Poor Farm, & sunny Rest Tuberculosis Sanatorium
The location which Racine’s Regency Mall, High Ridge Centre, and Pritchard Park currently occupy has a very long and troubled past, unknown to many residents of the city. The location sits between Highway 11, 21st Street, Ohio Street, and may extend slightly past Highway 31, where more paranormal experiences have been reported. This is where the Asylum for the Chronically Insane was built in December of 1889. Most Racine residents simply referred to it as Racine County Insane Asylum, and over the years it went through other names like Gatliff Asylum and High Ridge Hospitals. Patients included not only the insane, but also the elderly, immigrants, and poor. By 1904 the asylum held 133 patients when it suddenly burned down in a fire. All of the patients were able to escape mostly unharmed and their records were saved by staff. Within a year the building was already rebuilt. The County Home, better known as the poor farm, moved to the same property as the asylum around the early 1900s. Some of the patients were occasionally transferred from the asylum to the poor farm when they were able to show that they could do well in a less structured environment.
The asylum and poor farm were mostly-self sustaining, growing their own food, raising livestock, and sewing many of their own garments. This also meant that the asylum and farm had their own burial grounds for unclaimed deceased patients and inmates. Originally, it appeared that the cemeteries were kept separate from each other, but around 1910—after problems were being brought up about the neglected condition of both burial grounds and a lack of headstones for the buried individuals—the cemeteries were merged. Records of burials were also found be inadequate, raising further concerns about the manner in which they were buried, and sometimes reburied in incorrect graves. At one point the land was bought and the bodies that were set to be removed ended up being left buried and plowed over to even out the land. By 1916 it was decided that the graves would be marked and that the grounds would be kept up and given more attention than before. At the time there were thought to be over 250 graves that were known on the property.
Though not much is known about the care of living patients in the early asylum, in the 1940s two cases were brought against staff members at the asylum for abuse, neglect, and use of excessive force. The accused were Mr. and Mrs. Overson, an orderly and a matron at the asylum. Mr. Overson was accused of handling a male patient roughly and using turpentine to make him easier to deal with. Mrs. Ezra Overson was accused of keeping female patients in straight jackets and straps for over twelve hours a day, to the point where some of them had discolored, possibly dead hands. The witness and expert that were brought in to testify both attested to the cruelty of such a method. When restraints are used they often cause fear, anger, and injury to patients including stretching nerves, muscles, and tendons which can cause severe nerve damage. The court was unable to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that these actions were, in fact, abuse.
This wasn’t the last time that ill-treatment of patients at the asylum was brought to the forefront either. In 1954 a visiting psychiatrist criticized the facility claiming it was akin to a medieval dungeon and that care was “lacking and inadequate.” Records were incorrectly kept and many patients were physically sick. In 1971 county employees went on strike, citing the degrading treatment of patients. The asylum was closed c.1970 and razed c.1980. The pond that sat on the edge of the property still exists on what is now known as High Ridge Centre, a local shopping center by Regency Mall.
Also on the same plot of land as the asylum and poor farm was Sunny Rest Tuberculosis Sanatorium, opened in November of 1913 to treat victims of the deadly disease, often known as consumption. During the time the sanatorium was open they treated thousands of patients. Though the sanatorium was fairly successful in treating patients, due to the nature of the disease, many died there. Sunny Rest was closed in 1962 when tuberculosis was no longer as threatening as it had once been.
The rumors about paranormal activity on the High Ridge and Regency Mall site are numerous. Between employees at the old Office Max, Culver’s, Home Depot, and K-Mart there is no shortage of stories to tell. Carts would roll around the grounds overnight and doors in dressing rooms would open and slam shut. Occasionally things would knock themselves off shelves within the stores and employees claimed to have to go back to the same fallen item and pick it up multiple times in night. One employee even recalled her experience during a closing shift at K-Mart where Christmas music kept coming on even after they had turned everything off. At the mall, signs would mysteriously fall over and strange sounds unnerved employees. Cameras and sensors would also occasionally detect movement at night after the mall was closed and no one was there. Affectionately, some employees would blame these occurrences on the “ghost children.”
Paranormal occurrences have been reported in Pritchard Park, behind Regency Mall. Apparitions have been spotted multiple times in the wooded areas and sometimes at night strange sounds and voices can be heard. A group of ghost hunters even caught what appeared to be a voice while recording on site. Those who know about the burials in Pritchard have also talked about the feeling of being watched and seeing things out of the corner of the eye in the park. Some are even afraid to enter the park after dark because of the oddities and unnerving atmosphere.
Even the site across the street from High Ridge Centre and the mall has had its share of strange stories. One in particular, told by a former employee of Lone Star Steakhouse, sticks out. She recalled an early Monday morning when the manager was taking in shipment alone by the bar when three steaks were thrown onto the kitchen floor while no one was around. She also attested to the number of times that employees felt like they were being watched or heard voices. Perhaps one of the most unnerving experiences occurred after an employee died in a car crash. As protocol, her employee number and other information were taken out of the system by corporate, but in a bizarre turn of events orders behind the bar and in the kitchen would often turn up with her name on them, even late at night after they closed. They would be random items, like a steak or a vodka tonic, but they never had any table number listed on them. After years of the phantom orders, management called corporate offices to make sure that her number had been removed from the system only to find out it had indeed been removed for the past several years.
Racine has had a rich history of the dark and bizarre, and these are only three of many sites rumored to be haunted throughout the county. Stay tuned to read future volumes of Paranormal Points of Racine County, in which we’ll explore the history of even more mysterious locations.
Racine County was once one of the most populated towns in Wisconsin. It was the center of manufacturing, shipping, inventing, scientific advancements, and leisurely activities. Back in the days of old, so to speak, Racine was filled with things to do, places to go, and sites to see. Still, this did not stop Racine’s residents from pursuing one of their favorite pastimes—disaster spectating. It should come as no surprise to those who know about how popular public executions were to watch that people are drawn to the gruesome and curious nature of death and disasters. Today we’ll be taking a look at the top five historical disasters of Racine County and take a journey of our own to fulfill our morbid curiosities.
DEATHS: 0 | INJURIES: unknown | FINANCIAL LOSSES: unknown | DATE: March 3-8, 1912
Winter is hardly ever a fond memory for Wisconsinites. It’s more like a looming inevitability. The Winter of 1912 in Racine, WI was more like a bad dream that Racine residents would never forget. Many captains, sailors, and lighthouse keepers recalled the Winter of 1912 as one of the worst in Racine’s history. The winter was rough through the months of January and February, the temperature dropping below zero 27 times in less than 45 days. Racine’s harbor, the center of the town’s livelihood, had completely frozen over and winds were howling at nearly 60 mph from the northeast. Nearing the end of February things finally began looking up for Racine. Then two of the worst storms in Racine’s history hit.
On March 3, 1912 two lake steamers by the names of the Racine and the Iowa became trapped in the ice off Racine’s harbor with crews of around 75 men trapped inside. The ships had been headed to Milwaukee when they became trapped in the ice floes a mere one and a half miles from one another and about the same distance from shore. The winds were particularly harsh that day and the ships decided to try to wait out the bad weather in Racine’s harbor. Unfortunately, whilst trying to get back to the harbor each of the ships became stuck in nearly fifteen feet of blue ice. When word spread around of the ships’ circumstances, hundreds of Racine residents came out in the chilly weather to look at the ships trapped in the ice.
Residents were lined up between 10th and 15th Streets to watch the spectacle. Sailors were not as thrilled, however. Daniel Hoey, a sailor on one of the stuck ships, reportedly walked to shore to go purchase tobacco for his vessel. He made it about a mile using a broomstick as assistance but as he tried to jump over an area of open water he lost his footing and fell in. According to accounts he pulled himself out, continued his journey and got his tobacco and returned to the ship. It wasn’t until the following day, on March 4th that rescue was attempted. A tugboat by the name of Langlois was sent to rescue the Racine but it too became stuck in the ice.
As time went on with no progress in rescuing the ships Racine residents became more daring and tried to approach the ships themselves. John Campbell, a sailor aboard the Iowa, recounts what he saw from his ship, “About 500 men and boys walked across the ice from the end of Thirteenth St. to see the ships imprisoned in the immense ice floes… I remember reading that scores of boys broke through air holes in the ice and were soaked and chilled before getting ashore and home.”
After five days of being stuck in the ice, the ships were finally rescued on March 8th. Rescuers had dynamited channels around the ships large enough for them to return back to shore and the winds had shifted enough that the ice floes were no longer piling up as badly. On March 7th the Racine Journal-News offered its opinion on the whole spectacle, “The reckless manner in which children and young men venture on the ice in Lake Michigan in order to get near the steamers and tug may result in loss of life. Yesterday afternoon 100 trooped across the frozen water, and while ice was being dynamited stood close by. A number of boys fell through holes into the water and would have drowned had companions not pulled them out.”
DEATHS: 2 | INJURIES: 50-60 | FINANCIAL LOSSES: $200,000-$250,000 | DATE: March 24, 1891
Racine’s prime location between Milwaukee and Chicago have always made it a hub of locomotive activity. This was never truer than in the late 1800s when business was booming in the city. Multiple major transportation lines crossed through the city regularly, both carrying both freight and passengers. That being said, Racine was no stranger to train wreckages. With the number of trains coming through the city on a daily basis, there was bound to be accidents. One of these accidents was particularly memorable and came to be known as the Wreck of 1891.
Back in the 1890s it was customary for trains to all come to a full stop within 400 feet of the St. Paul railroad crossing. It was on March 24th, 1891 that this rule was violated and one of the nastiest train wrecks in Racine occurred. A southbound freight train that had pulled onto the main line to take water was being backed into the siding to make room for an incoming northbound passenger train when the crash occurred. The freight train was nearly in the clear when the passenger train came barreling down the tracks at 40 mph, seemingly unable to stop. The head brakeman aboard the freight train went onto the tracks with his red lantern to try and signal the passenger train to come to a stop, but when it became clear that he could no longer safely remain on the tracks he hurled his lantern at the locomotive and jumped off the tracks. The trains collided head-on, reared up into the air and swayed an instant before they both came toppling down onto the east side of the tracks, destroying the wooden platform at the junction. The debris from the passenger and baggage cars burst into flames moments later.
Later in court, D.E. Burke of Milwaukee, the engineer of the passenger train, testified that he tried to apply the brakes multiple times before the 400-foot sign but when it became clear that they were not working he tried to reverse the train but the lever failed to catch and the train continued to barrel forward. It was later determined that the wreck was caused by the failure of the air breaks to work, though the cause of the failure itself was never identified. There are conflicting reports of the number of passengers injured in the wreck, ranging from 50-60. It is said that hospitals were at maximum capacity and drug stores nearby reported a boom in business immediately following the wreck. Those who escaped with minor injuries were the lucky ones.
William Roe of Kenosha, an engineer on the passenger train jumped to the west as the crash occurred and escaped with only minor injuries. Those who jumped to the east were not so fortunate. John Gobben of Milwaukee, a fireman aboard the passenger train leaped out of the train as they were about to collide but instead was caught up within the wreck and badly wounded. He was rushed to St. Mary’s Hospital but died of his injuries about 22 hours later. Willis Andres, a resident of Crystal Lake and a fireman aboard one of the trains, met a similar fate. When he saw that a collision was inevitable he jumped out of the train but was quickly buried beneath the wreckage. When his body was finally recovered several hours later it was reportedly “badly mangled.”
Word of the train wreck spread quickly and soon hundreds showed up to look at the fiery wreck. One witness, Milt M. Jones, an amateur photographer with one of the first box cameras produced that used roll film, even got a few snapshots of the wreckage that quickly became in high demand as souvenirs. The congestion caused by the crowds of onlookers made it difficult for emergency services to reach the wreck and one fire engine even became stuck in the mud on its way to the scene. Loss of life and injuries were not the only problems victims of the wreck had to face. As more spectators came to look at the crash, so too did looters looking to capitalize off of the tragedy. Passengers complained of jewelry and money theft and even reported seeing spectators trying to rob beer bottles that had been being transported on the freight train. A New York salesman reported losing over $2,000 worth of merchandise in the fire and over $6,000 of money that had been on the train had burned up within an overheated safe. Overall, losses were estimated between $200,000-$250,000 and both locomotives were deemed unsalvageable.
DEATHS: 3 | INJURIES: unknown | FINANCIAL LOSSES: $197,000 | DATE: December 28, 1884
Many large cities back in the day had multiple entertainment venues to occupy their citizens’ leisure time. One of the most popular of these venues, especially in Racine, were opera houses and theaters. The Blake Opera house was built in 1882 and praised for being the finest venue in the state. The opera house resided at the northeast corner of Sixth and Barnstable Streets and was a popular destination for the citizens of Racine. The night of the fire a production of the Beggar Student had been going on just hours earlier. On the frigid evening of December 28th flames were to be discovered shortly after midnight when two explosions rocked the building. Within moment fire had engulfed the northeast end of the building. The flames quickly ate away ate the ornamental façade of the opera house along with adjoining hotel, which at the time of the fire was filled with guests.
It wasn’t until 1:05am that the first alarm was sounded by a police officer who spotted the flames from his post on Main and Fifth Streets. By 1:15am six steamers from the fire department were pumping water at the blaze, including a steamer by the name of “L.S. Blake.” Efforts shifted from trying to extinguish the fire to trying to prevent the spread of the fire due to the cold winds that made it impossible to stop. Hundreds of residents from nearby turned out at the late hour to watch them battle the fire. Women in nightgowns, children, and men were all witnessed running from the building in a panic.
Spectators even claimed to see a woman hanging out of a fourth story window screaming for help. Allegedly someone shouted to her “jump for your life” but it was too late as another explosion was heard and the woman was swallowed in flames. This was likely the housekeeper, Mrs. Patricks, who was one of three killed in the fire. The servant’s quarters in the upper story of the hotel were one of the first to be cut off when blazing rafters fell, making escape impossible. Two others, a husband and wife that were both a part of the Thompson Opera Company were lost to the fire. Mr. and Mrs. Glover’s bodies were not recovered until several days later, reportedly found clutching one another in their charred state.
Aside from the loss of life the fire did an estimated $197,000 worth of damage. What little insurance money that was received after the disaster was split between stockholders and the lots where the opera house once stood were to be sold off to the highest bidder. Even coins found in the wreckage were sold to spectators as momentous of the tragedy. The Thompson Opera Company reported $6,000 in damages and multiple benefits were hosted on behalf of the survivors of the fire. Though morbid, Racinians were grateful that the fire happened as late as it did, rather than when the opera house was still filled with guests from the show. They were relieved that the loss of life was not greater from such a disastrous fire.
DEATHS: 1 (indirect) | INJURIES: unknown | FINANCIAL LOSSES: $750,000-$1,000,000 | DATE: May 5, 1882
The Blaze of 1882 was Racine’s most devastating fire. It began in the evening of May 5th, 1882 and was not stopped until late the next afternoon. Winds were coming from the northeast at nearly 20 mph and causing destructive waves to crash against the harbor. Out in the dock sat the tugboat called Sill, near the Goodrich warehouse. It was when sparks went flying from the smokestack and landed on the roof of the warehouse that the fire began. Around 10pm people began smelling smoke and at 10:45pm the fire was first reported.
The fire first consumed the Goodrich Transportation Company warehouse which was located on the south harbor pier near the shore. The warehouse was filled to the brim with dry goods which acted like kindling to the fire which smoldered in the building for at least one hour before breaking through the roof. Nearby was the abandoned Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad Company’s grain elevator, towering around 156 feet tall. The fire had no problem making its way from the warehouse to the grain elevator, eating away the structure and hardly giving firefighters a chance to stop the flames before they reached the next-door lumber yards. The Jones, Knapp & Co and Kelly, Weeks & Co both lost over 10 million feet of lumber to the fire. Schooners that were docked nearby were in danger of burning up from the magnitude of the fire and had to be moved away from the harbor.
At the time the fire department only had two horse-drawn steamers which were completely inadequate for dealing with the flames. The Racine Daily Journal equated the steamers to “squirt guns” in the face of the flames. Without proper firefighting equipment, the fire grew large enough to be seen from Milwaukee and a schooner captain in Two Rivers even reported being able to see it. The fire threatened to burn D.P. Wigley’s building, which at the time housed a linseed oil factory known as Emerson & Co. and if it could not be contained before it reached that building it could even reach as far as Monument Square. Unfortunately, the flames did reach Congress Hall, a premier hotel in the city which Mary Todd Lincoln had stayed for a few weeks in 1867 after her husband died. The building was lost.
The bluffs near Chatam Street prevented firefighters from being able to access the lake and by 11:30pm Mayor William Packard realized the city was in trouble and called Milwaukee for assistance. A train carrying help from the Milwaukee Fire Department arrived around 2:45 am and a shoe shop building was dynamited to help stop the advance of the fire. At 4:30am trains carrying men and equipment from Chicago’s fire department also arrived. Though the fire had mostly been stopped on Main Street it was still burning on Wisconsin Street. Even Kenosha’s fire department is said to have assisted in fighting the flames, and by 5am the fire was under control. Still, the fire was not completely extinguished until around 2pm.
Miraculously, the only death attributed to the fire was that of an elderly woman, who reportedly died of a heart attack from the shock of the fire. Sadly, the loss of homes and businesses were immense. Over 44 buildings had been completely destroyed in the fire and dozens of families were left homeless. Financial losses directly after the fire were exaggerated but as things calmed down loss estimates were still anywhere from $750,000 to $1,000,000. Only $300,000, or about a third of the loss was covered by insurance.
Looters also made off with thousands of dollars’ worth of goods during the chaos of the conflagration.  Stocks had been moved outside of buildings and into the streets to keep them from the damage of the fire. Unfortunately, they were largely unprotected. Among the goods stolen newspapers reported that coffins, over 52 pairs of boots, and many raw materials for shoe production had been stolen. A firefighter visiting from Milwaukee was even witnessed to have stolen a roll of felt from Miller Boot Co. to use as a horse blanket. The Racine Daily Journal called for looters to return their stolen goods to their rightful owners. Out of all the damage caused by the fire there was one silver lining. Racine residents demanded the fire department be equipped with more up to date firefighting technology and new equipment was purchased shortly after the fire.
DEATHS: 7-10 | INJURIES: 85-100 | FINANCIAL LOSSES: $70,000 | DATE: May 18, 1883
The cyclone that hit Racine in 1883 was the first that had touched down in the county since its settlement. Previously it had been believed that due to its lakeshore location Racine was immune to the path of cyclonic storms. Residents soon found out that they were wrong. At 4pm on May 18th, an electrical storm began to brew in the sky and temperatures were unusually cool for the season. By 5:30pm the sky had gotten unusually dark and the temperature rose rapidly. At 7pm the tornado touched down, coming from the southwest. First, it uprooted farms outside of the city before moving to Horlick’s Food Factory and the Mt. Pleasant School, destroying all within its path.
The path of the tornado was about three city blocks wide and took a northerly path toward the residential areas of Racine, destroying homes and businesses. The few houses that had existed between Horlick’s Food Factory and the city were gone. The scope of the tornado’s damage had exceeded anyone’s expectations, destroying all of the north side of High Street and Douglas Avenue, to Flat Iron Square, making it to the west side of North Main Street at its furthest reaches. Most of the homes that had been destroyed were made of wood, but several were also brick, showing the true power of the tornado. Anvils, farm equipment, and other heavy machinery had been thrown about as if it were nothing, including a house that had been picked up and carried onto the Northwestern train tracks, delaying trains for nearly a day. When the cyclone finally passed into Lake Michigan it created water spouts nearly 300 feet high that witnesses described as “beautiful.”
Most residents who were able to reach their cellars were safe from the storm’s full force, but those who were still outside when it hit were not so lucky. Victims included men, women, and children alike and estimates of those killed by the tornado ranged from 7-10 individuals. One young girl was picked up by the wind and thrown against a home, instantly being killed. Another incident that had originally been seen as a miracle soon became a tragedy. Fourteen people had made it safely out of Petura’s Grocery Store when the building was ripped apart by the winds. Unfortunately, the following day the bodies of two young sisters sent to fetch groceries before the storm hit, were found beneath the wreckage. Their ages were six and eight years old.
Somewhere between 85 and 100 people were injured in the cyclone and that night both the living and dead were removed from the rubble. The bodies of those that had died were guarded overnight until they could be taken to the courthouse the following day and those that were injured, 31 of which were considered dangerously injured, were taken to St. Mary’s and St. Luke’s Hospitals for treatment. Over 250 people were made homeless and over 128 homes and buildings were destroyed. Many of those who were victims of the storm were foreign-born laborers who had now lost everything. Losses were estimated at $70,000.
The following day ruins were visited by people of all different localities, many of them venturing on train from Kenosha, Chicago, Waukegan, and Milwaukee. One year after the great blaze Racine had once again become a target for spectators and looters. Everyone wanted a part in the drama, prompting many to make up their own stories of how they were involved in the windstorm. In one newspaper a fifteen year old boy had his own tall tale told: “John Schootens, a boy about 15 years old, declares that he was taken up by the wind, carried far away from the starting point and landed in a mud puddle clear up to his chin. Being unable to pull himself out, and no one coming to perform that office, he philosophically made the best of circumstances and slept warm and comfortable all night. In the morning he was seen by a passer by and extricated. Some say the boy lies.”
Racine’s Common Council immediately pulled into action, trying to provide relief for those that had become victims of the storm. Temporary shelter was offered at the Blake house and many found refuge with neighbors and relatives that were unharmed by the cyclone. Within a short amount of time a Tornado Relief Association was formed and many of the prominent and wealthy men in the city donated. They managed to collect a grand total of $20,340 for those in need. $17,007 was spent on those in need, 19% going towards personal property lost, 57% going towards lost dwellings, 2% going toward sundry bills, and 5% for wounded parties. The remaining 17% was put toward a fund for the relief of future disasters. With the spirit of community, Racine once again collected itself and moved on from yet another tragedy.