Lonesome tombstone marks conductor's final resting spot

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Den Adler/Special to the Gazette
Saturday, March 7, 2009
— From the North Prairie ballpark along Highway 59, the monument looks out of place.

The 10-foot shaft of white marble sits by itself beyond left field fence near the Wisconsin & Southern Railroad tracks.

If you look closely, you'll notice eroded letters on the side of the tombstone facing the tracks—not the highway. You might have trouble making out the message above and below the engraving of a railroad passenger car:

George E. Price
Died at Milton
March 23, A.D. 1859
Aged 31 yrs. & 3 mos.
Late conductor on M. & M. R.R.
This monument is erected as a tribute of respect by the employees of the Milwaukee & Mississippi Railroad Co.

George Price died at Milton nearly 150 years ago, but his grave is 35 miles east in North Prairie, along the tracks of the first railroad to cross Wisconsin.

By the 1950s, the monument's origin was forgotten. Even the local agent for the Milwaukee Road, which then owned the tracks, told a reporter he'd heard several stories, including one about a wreck at the site.

But in 1955, The Milwaukee Journal ran William F. Starke's story about the mysterious grave. Starke described a tall tombstone next to a sidetrack switch with an untidy picket fence around a weed-covered grave.

Today, the switch, the sidetrack and the fence are gone, and the grass is cut.

'Esteem and friendship'

In the 1850s, the Milwaukee & Mississippi Railroad laid tracks west from Milwaukee through Waukesha, North Prairie and Milton (with a line to Janesville), then through Madison and Spring Green to Prairie du Chien on the Mississippi River. The route became part of the old Milwaukee Road, and today the red and gray locomotives of the Wisconsin & Southern Railroad pull long trains past George Price's grave.

Price lived in Janesville with his 5-year-old daughter Harriet Louisa, his mother and a widowed sister. His wife was in a Brattleboro, Vt., mental hospital.

Despite his troubles, Price became a popular passenger train conductor, working between Janesville and Milton, Madison and Milwaukee.

The Janesville Morning Gazette reported: "Mr. Price has been upon this road for several years, and by his gentlemanly and courteous conduct has won the esteem and friendship of all."

On one of his Milwaukee trips, Price told his crew how he loved the area around North Prairie. When he died, he said, he wanted to be buried there.

At dusk Monday, March 7, 1859, Price was in charge of a passenger car being pushed from Janesville to Milton to join the Milwaukee-to-Madison train. As his short train rounded a curve near the station, Price saw a lumber car on the track. He stood on his car's platform to apply the brake, but the engineer didn't see the freight car, and Price was thrown against an iron bar that fractured his skull.

Dr. Henry Palmer performed surgery on Price at the home of William Morgan, owner of the hotel and station at Milton Junction, where the Liberty Station restaurant sits today. The railroad sent another surgeon, Dr. E.B. Wolcott, to examine Price, and he declared, "Chances are in favor of his recovery."

But Price died at 2 p.m. March 23 with his daughter at his side. Two days later, the railroad, with its president, superintendent, and other officers aboard, ran a special train from Milwaukee to Janesville free to anyone who wanted to attend the funeral.

'Loss of a gentleman'

Price's pallbearers were five fellow conductors and the Janesville station agent. A prayer service at Price's home on South Jackson Street was followed by a procession to the Baptist church, a brick building still standing at the southwest corner of Court and Cherry Streets. Hundreds of mourners were unable to get into the church.

The conductors submitted a resolution published in Janesville, Madison, and Milwaukee newspapers reading: "We have sustained the loss of a gentleman, who by his kindness and urbane deportment invariably added to the pleasure and gratification of all who were temporarily placed under his charge."

The Madison Journal added: "He was a general favorite with the traveling public, and highly esteemed and loved by his more intimate friends and associates."

The paper also reported that on the morning of the accident, Price received a letter from his wife saying she had recovered, and he should go immediately to Vermont to take her from the hospital.

From Janesville, a train with its engine and five passenger cars draped in black carried Price's body to its burial at the site he had requested.

Today, 150 years later, the Milwaukee & Mississippi Railroad's tribute to its employee still stands to remind passersby of George E. Price, "a gentleman, who by his kindness and urbane deportment added to the pleasure and gratification of all."

Last updated: 9:55 am Thursday, December 13, 2012

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