Memories of a tragic train and car collision seventy years ago

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By Shelia Tomkins

When the sound of a train whistle pierces the air as it passes through Guttenberg, resident Barb Leitgen  often reflects on a childhood memory of a horrific car and train collision near St. Mary's Church in Guttenberg.

Leitgen vividly recalls the time, date and place of the accident. "I remember a train calling its whistle on Sunday, June 13, at quarter to ten, in 1946," she said. "I was in St. Mary's Church and we heard a terrible, terrible crash — crunching metal — during the service." 

"We had to wait until the service finished, and we were sitting there with anxiety," remembers the former Barbara Kann, who was 11 years old at the time and was attending services with her mother, Juanita Kann. 

She recalls leaving the church with her mother and heading toward the railroad tracks. "She had nurses training so I'm sure she thought she could give help," said Leitgen. "The bodies were already covered in dark blankets. There was nothing she could do. That's all I remember." 

For Leitgen, the accident left an indelible memory. Recently she decided to do some historical sleuthing to fill in the details. 

Searching in The Guttenberg Press archives available online on the website of the Guttenberg Public Library, she found a front page account of the tragedy and learned that accident wiped out an entire family of four — Mr. and Mrs. Henry Jacobson and their two children, originally of Dickey, N.D. A fifth passenger in the car, Henry Luck, also of Dickey, escaped with minor injuries. 

According to the report, Henry Jacobson, 34, and his one-year-old daughter, Judy, died instantly. A 10-year old son died later that day at a Dubuque hospital and Mrs. Jacobson died two days later, also at a Dubuque hospital.

The Press reported that Mr. and Mrs. Jacobson and the baby girl were riding in the front seat, while Henry Luck and the boy were in the rear of the Buick sedan. The heavily loaded locomotive was travelling 20-25 miles per hour and took more than four blocks to stop after the collision.  

The family was enroute from their home in Marion, Ind., to Minneapolis for a family reunion. The newspaper reported that Mr. Jacobson didn't see the train and was driving toward the tracks at the crossing of Third and Herder Streets, just north of the depot, when Mrs. Jacobson warned of the approaching train. "He put on the brakes but did not come to a stop until the car was directly in front of the locomotive," reported the Press. 

Leitgen said that the accident made her realize the importance of train whistles. "We should be grateful it whistles, even though it might disturb us in the middle of the night."

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