The family of John Wachal. John, an emigrant from Austria in the area then known as Bohemia, came to America with his wife Katherine and children in 1887. Born around 1858, John settled in Milwaukee and worked as a brick mason. Katherine, or Kate, was born in 1861 in Brnirov, Bohemia to Matthias (Matej) Hamata and Maria Schleiszova. The top photo was taken in Germany prior to their emigration: (from left) Barbara, Katherine Hamata Wachal, Mary, John Wachal, John Jr.
This photo from around 1904 shows the expanded family: (from left) Jacob, Mary, Katherine Hamata Wachal, John Jr., Emma, John., Barbara and Kate.
As was typical of most construction workers who worked on major projects, John travelled to different job sites while his family stayed in Milwaukee. In May, 1911, the Catholic congregation of St. James in Wausau, Wisconsin committed to build a new church with a capacity of 640. Anton Dohmen, architect of Milwaukee, designed the church, while the Marks Brothers Construction Company of Milwaukee was hired as the contractor. Following excavation of the site, John joined the construction crew. Construction progressed into the fall, with most of the exterior completed. But then, a terrible event happened, as detailed in a parish history of St. James:
On September 21, 1911, the Wausau Daily Record-Herald reported: "The most deplorable accident in the history of Wausau occurred at 7:35 o'clock this morning when the supports under the dome at the new St. James church gave way and the roof, the great mass of frame work and the uncompleted dome fell to the floor, forty five or more feet below and crashed through into the basement." John Wachel, a Milwaukee mason, died a short time after arriving at St. Mary's hospital and Albert Schultz, a Wausau mason, never regained consciousness and died on September 25. Four others were injured in the fall - Herman Krause of Milwaukee, and Joseph Guralski, Luke Kough and William Gendron, all of Wausau. Joseph Ford and Labe Melang were caught under the debris and sustained serious injuries as well.
Father Brennan was in Milwaukee at the time of the accident, and upon his return, was quoted in the Herald: "I am beside myself with grief; I am almost heartbroken and very much discouraged because of this sad, and wholly unlooked for accident. The loss of money and the great delay occasioned by the accident are matters of grave concern, but that is the least consideration. It is the loss of life and the serious injuries to the working men that I deplore ... I have learned to know them and to love them. That's what makes me sad ... though this is a serious setback and another sad blow to me and mine, the proposed St. James church shall be erected in due time. This is not the first reverse of a serious character .. and we shall not be dismayed or confounded by it. The good work, under God, shall go on so long as God gives me health and strength to labor in His cause as pastor of St. James."
A Coronor's Inquest followed, and for many days various testimony was heard by a jury. Some thought a storm the night of September 20th was to blame, others blamed a broken bolt, and workmen said there was a crack in the northwest pier. The architect believed it impossible for the pier to have given way and the engineer said that there was no doubt that the pier had collapsed. On September 25th, the Coronor's Jury reached a verdict: "The opinion of the jurors is that the collapse was caused by the crushing of the pier situated in the northwest corner of said church structure, which supported one of the steel columns supporting the central dome. We are further of the opinion that said pier was of faulty construction and that the materials specified and used were not of the proper kind to support heavy loads." As citizens of Wausau, the jury further recommended that "a proper building ordinance be enacted to provide the proper construction and inspection of buildings, so as to prevent future disasters of this nature."
On September 27, a crew of men began clearing away the debris and taking down the damaged parts of the church. All the steel work had to be taken out and the piers were razed, allowing the dome work to start from the ground and be fully and completely rebuilt. About one-third of the brick walls were taken down - mainly at the northwest and northeast corners. The sections of wall not broken appeared to be as solid as rocks. The debt incurred by the parish during unavoidable litigation which neccessitated the services of an attorney, amounted to $225.70. Also, legal settlement of claims against the congregation amounted to $211.05.A Postcard View of the Accident
Following the accident, the family struggled to make ends meet for a time. Kate Wachal's attorney filed a statement in Milwaukee County court in April, 1912 saying that his work included "a six month's contest with the Bohemian Fraternal Insurance Society, known as Zapadna Jednota, (and) the extensive correspondence with attorneys in Wausau and Stevens Point." With a limited command of English, Kate made numerous appearances in court in the five years after the accident filing guardianship papers, reports, and explaining why she failed to make still other reports. By 1914 she had remarried to a gentleman with the last name of Cerny, and was living at 557 Herman Street. At the time of her death in 1947, Kate was living at 2345 S. 33 Street with her son John.Of the children, John Jr. and Jake may have never married (they were single when they died in 1947 and 1931 respectively). Jake was employed in the construction business, like his father, working with concrete. Barbara married Emil J. Sponholz, a Milwaukee grocer, in 1900 and had three children (Elmer, Melvin Edward and Elaine Dorothy Sponholz). Mary married Emil's brother Herman Sponholz five years later, and they had one daughter, Evelyn. Kate married Edward Hoff, a carpenter, in West Allis in 1915 (they had at least one daughter, Dorothy), and Emma was married to Robert D. Von Neida in 1922.
My thanks to family historian Allyn Nelson of Wild Rose, Wisconsin, genealogist Shelley Green of Wausau and Fr. Steve Gross of the Parish of the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ in Wausau and his staff for supplying information presented on this page.
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