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Blood on the Tracks, Part II: Two Deadly Crashes

Pat Torrance tells the story behind two of the most devastating train crashes in our area: one in Naperville in 1946, and one in Montgomery in 1964.

To read Part One of this article, .

When looking for information about local train wrecks, I came across an article in the Oswego Ledger describing an accident involving the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railway in Montgomery on September 16, 1891. 

The Kendall County Record carried the story about three merchandise trains involved in the collision, and the death of James Roddy, the engineer. The only cause of the accident given was "a misunderstanding between the officials and employees, as in the rules of running trains." The railroad superintendent failed to appear at the inquest to testify before the coroner’s jury, leaving the important questions unanswered.

This was not the case in the following two accidents where, after extensive investigations, there seemed to be no question about the cause and the blame.

The Naperville Train Wreck of 1946 was considered, at that time, the worst train wreck in U.S. history. The accident was the result of two trains leaving Union Station in Chicago, with the second one leaving just seconds after the first. 

This was routine for these two trains. The engineers on both trains had followed each other this close many times, and occasionally experienced the yellow warning light when they got too close. They had never had even a close call before, and they developed the habit of ignoring the yellow lights.

Then the fatal mistake occurred, and it became more than a close call. With the Exposition Flyer following behind, the Advance Flyer made an unscheduled stop in Naperville to check its running gear. 

It was a case of ‘crying wolf’ too often. The red signal flashed, and the second engineer applied the brakes immediately, but was unable to stop in time. The train had been going 85 miles per hour, but had slowed to 60 when it crashed.

As the engine of the Exposition Flyer crashed into the rear car of the first train, the car was upended and split in two. The majority of the casualties were from this car. Evacuation was difficult and slow. Someone ran to the Kroehler furniture factory across the street and called the fire department emergency responders. The death toll was 47, and injuries totaled 125.

This crash occurred at a time during the 1930s and '40s when speeds were approaching 100 miles per hour on some lines, including the CB&Q. The cause of the accident was determined to be "insufficient warning of a stopped train." This accident effectively ended the race for speed. New regulations were applied, and now the top speed is 79 miles per hour.

Naperville's population numbered 5,287 at that time. Most of them rushed to the scene, and many older residents have vivid recollections of that day. The insulation from the train cars blanketed the village like snow. A temporary morgue was set up in the Kroehler building. Students from nearby North Central College became litter-bearers. Those students would be in their mid-80s today.

Friends of mine who lived on the east side of Aurora tell about following the tracks to Naperville, and walking to the site of the wreckage. Rescue crews worked throughout the night to get everybody out. 

Montgomery was the scene of another horrible train disaster that occurred on September 27 of 1964, at 10:48 p.m. This time it was a head-on crash when the Kansas City Zephyr slammed into the Rock Island Line’s standing Golden State Limited.

Four people were killed and forty-three were injured. Three of the dead were crewmembers who died instantly, and the fourth crewmember died later at a hospital. There were 400 passengers on the two trains.

The accident occurred when the Rock Island train, eastbound from Los Angeles, used the Burlington tracks because a bridge was out on its own line. 

Chris Stathis was a railroad buff and a part time dispatcher for the fire department. He and his wife Eunice lived at the corner of Railroad and Jefferson streets. His childhood home was a few blocks north on Railroad Street, and as a lifelong resident there, he was thoroughly familiar with all of the train whistles and railroad sounds.  

The sound of an unfamiliar train whistle, that of the Rock Island train which was stopped, woke him. He hurried to the window and saw the “sweeping light of an oncoming train.” He saw the Ak-Sar-Ben Zephyr about 200 feet from the Rock Island train, just after it was diverted onto the Streator Branch. 

The collision sounded like thunder to him, and he watched as the Rhode Island engine went airborne and landed on top of the Burlington Diesel. 

The accident scene was south of the Montgomery depot off Webster Street. In one photo, a car can be seen in the backyard of the Beyer home on Railroad Street. 

The Montgomery Volunteer Fire Department was at the scene immediately. Other fire and sheriff departments responded. Twenty ambulances and rescue trucks were used to transport the injured to nearby hospitals. A tow truck was used to free the fireman from the Burlington locomotive. He did not survive.

Cecil Piggott was working for the CB&Q at that time, and his partner called to tell him that he would be working on the Rock Island Train that night. His friend lost his life in the crash.

The Montgomery Fire Chief, Charles Gaylord, and Roy Manning, his assistant, were on duty the night of the crash. You may recognize the names, as they are now street names in the newer developments around town. Other people who served the village in past years are similarly honored. There is no list available of the men who were at that crash, but the minutes show that they were recognized for their outstanding service at the following meeting. Several men, who were among the younger firemen at the time, are still living in village.   

A lengthy investigation into the cause of the accident revealed that it was a result of confusion in the switching process, which was being upgraded and required some temporary special operations with the interlocking levers. It was determined that if the interlocking had conformed to Interstate Commerce Commission regulations, the accident would not have happened.

It is interesting to note that the big train accident in Montgomery happened the same month as the shoot-out at Shannon’s Tavern. There was plenty to talk about in the coffee shops and saloons around town that month.

Two people were especially helpful to me in gathering information for this story.  Chief Tom Meyers of the Montgomery and Countryside Fire Department and Marcel Beretta, who lived on Railroad Street next to the accident scene, and loaned me his collection of photos. Cecil Piggott, a retired Burlington engineer, explained how these tragic accidents happened.  

ScottC January 27, 2012 at 01:12 PM
This is the type of article is a great fit to the "Patch". Thanks to Pat for providing a view to the past history of the railroad.

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