Marshfield, April 1908: The brief life of Otto Backhaus
A young businessman and father of three meets an untimely demise
By Kris Leonhardt
As Otto Backhaus stepped outside his Marshfield home one Thursday morning in 1908, his body bristled from the coolness of the early spring morning. The freshly risen sun had not done much to warm the chilly air. As he descended down his front steps at 110 S. Vine St., he lifted his fur coat over his ears to shield his skin.
Backhaus, born in Kewaskum, Wis., had come to Marshfield with his father in 1894 while in his early twenties. His father, a German-born hops seller, purchased stock in the Marshfield Brewing Company and gradually worked to become the sole owner.
Otto married Emma Maria Baker in June 1897, and she had their first child, Dorothy, one year later. Three years later another daughter, Loretta, would be added to the family. Finally, in 1904, Emma would give birth to a son, Otto Jr., who would carry on the family name.
At 33 years of age, Otto had already become an upstanding and noted businessman in the Marshfield community. Working with his father in the Brewing Company, Otto served as secretary/treasurer of the prosperous business while heading up the selling department.
The father of three had moments earlier said his goodbyes at the front door. He wished his wife a pleasant day as she waited in anticipation for the celebration that would commemorate her 32nd birthday. Otto turned to his daughters and reminded them to be respectful to their teachers before turning his attention to Otto Jr., who was just 4 at the time.
Now outside heading north on foot, Otto neared the Vine Street crossing of the Wisconsin Central Railway. As he approached the main tracks, his attention was diverted by a massive freight train approaching on the passing track to the north of the main line. Heavily loaded, the freight train made an awful clamor as it approached from the west.
With Backhaus’ ears muffled and his eyes veered westward, the roar of the engine and the racket produced by the freight cars made it impossible for Backhaus to hear the approaching 6:45 passenger train pulling in from the east.
As Backhaus was struck by the No. 1 Wisconsin Central locomotive, his body was propelled from the tracks. The train came to a hard but gradual stop, and Backhaus’ body was retrieved by bystanders and carefully taken to the depot. However, he would succumb to his injuries by the time he reached the depot.
The successful businessman left his young family in suitable means after purchasing sizable life insurance and accident policies. His widow, Emma, would later remarry. His grief-stricken father, August, would pass away the following February. August, along with Otto’s mother and widow, were laid to rest alongside Otto in the Immanuel Lutheran Cemetery in Marshfield.