Sometimes, history is all around us with only the intervention of time sparing us from dramatic events of the past. Near the Metra Burlington Road station in Naperville, IL, the Kroehler factory still hunkers after all these years, an old soldier bearing mute testimony to a terrible thing that happened more than 60 years ago.
April 25th, 1946 – Naperville, Illinois
The end of World War II and the post-war economic boom had ushered in the age of gleaming diesel locomotives – powerful engines that could achieve great speed. Now the issue was not how fast a train could run but how fast it could be stopped, as is illustrated by this disaster.
Both the Advance Flyer and the Exposition Flyer were “crack” Burlington trains, each carrying from 150 to 200 passengers on this fateful day. The two trains departed from Union Station in Chicago at 12:35 p.m. on separate tracks, bound for different destinations in the west but traveling in the same direction. After a few miles, they each rolled onto the center track, with the Advance Flyer in the lead. Although they were now theoretically being treated as one train, the Advance was on a faster schedule … but not fast enough, as it turned out.
The Advance Flyer was running about 60 seconds late as it roared through Downers Grove at 12:57 p.m. with the Exposition in hot pursuit, only three minutes behind. The trains were living up to their “Flyer” monikers as each one rocketed along at speeds of at least 80 miles an hour when, about five miles farther west, a distraction occurred … something which appeared to be either a flame or a small rock shot out from under the engine of the Advance Flyer. Whatever it was concerned the train’s crew enough that they stopped for an immediate inspection. Engineer A. W. Anderson brought the Advance to a halt near Loomis Street in Naperville and joined his crew in getting off to check things out. This unscheduled stop triggered the Burlington Line’s automatic control system, activating a yellow “caution” light at 7,784 feet east and a red “mandatory stop” light to turn on at 1,100 feet east, but the Exposition was following so closely behind and at such a great rate of speed that this alert system temporarily was rendered ineffective and pointless.
The first warning that passengers of the Advance had was when Flagman James Tengney raced through the rear car, jumped off, and called back to them “I’m going to try to stop that train behind us.” It was too late. Almost immediately, the Exposition Flyer rounded a curve to the east, bearing down on the other train with its brakes screeching but unable to slow down much. Curtis Crayton, the Exposition’s fireman, tried to jump at the last minute and died in this attempt but Engineer Blaine stayed at his post as his train raced on. At the moment of impact, the flat silver nose of the great diesel locomotive plowed into the rear steel coach of the Advance “as if the car was a cigar box.” At first, the onrushing engine seemed to pose in the air, then tore through the roof and plunged down with great force onto the floor and trucks of the car. Both trains shook from the impact but the Advance suffered most of the damage. Its dining car which was directly in front of the doomed rear car buckled under the impact and was destroyed. The third car from the rear was half overturned and the fourth completely overturned. In all, six coaches on the Advance Flyer were overturned or derailed and five on the Exposition Flyer.
The roar of the crash could be heard for miles and people from the surrounding area — including many Kroehler employees who left their jobs and ran outside to see what was going on — rushed to the scene to help as they could. A hundred people had been injured and 47 killed, most of them in the destroyed rear or dining cars of the Advance. Surviving passengers – many in shock from the loss of dear ones who had perished or bereft of personal property lost in the crash – wandered forlornly here and there along the tracks until they were rounded up and taken on special trains back to Chicago.
Why It Happened:
Investigations were launched almost immediately but Engineer Blaine of the Exposition had miraculously survived the crash and saved everyone a lot of time by admitting “We were going too fast.” He confessed that he had been traveling at 85 miles an hour when the warning lights were activated so that, though he had applied his brakes at once, he had been unable to stop in time.
Thanks to research about this famous disaster, national regulations were established regarding traveling speed for locomotives. Today, modern commuters travel in safety on trains which sweep majestically but at a dignified pace through the Naperville station where only the dimension of time, good judgment, and common sense have intervened between us and the wreckage caused by one of the worst railway accidents in our nation’s history.
“47 Die,100 Hurt in Wreck, Engineer’s Story of Crash,” Chicago Tribune, Apr. 26, 1946