The Caucus Blog of the Illinois House Republicans: The Chatsworth crash

The Caucus Blog of the Illinois House Republicans: The Chatsworth crash

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By the late 1880s Illinois was booming. The dark days of the early 1870s, with the Chicago Fire and a nationwide economic recession, were fading into memory as farmers produced bigger crops each year and railroads brought commerce and opportunity to cities and towns throughout the state.

This newfound prosperity and interconnectedness also provided an opportunity for recreation which had been unheard of for working class Illinoisans just a few decades earlier. With a little money in their pocket and a nearby rail connection to any point in the country, many Illinoisans were taking their first long-distance vacations during the decade of the 1880s.

Such was the case on August 11, 1887, for a group of more than
600 vacationers aboard an excursion train taking them from their homes in Iowa
and Illinois to visit the famed Niagara Falls in New York. Their Toledo, Peoria
and Western (TP&W) Railroad train had left Iowa that morning, with many
passengers enticed by a special reduced fare for vacationers heading for the
falls.

As it traveled east across Illinois the train picked up
passengers from stops such as Canton, El Paso and Washington, with the majority
of them boarding at Peoria (“there was scarcely a family in the city that did
not have a friend or relative on board,” a Chicago Tribune dispatch would later
recount). When the train left Peoria around sundown it consisted of two
engines, three cars for luggage and a dozen wooden passenger cars with half of
those being sleeper cars.

It seemed like a good time to take a trip to see the
majestic falls. That summer had been unusually hot and dry throughout the
Midwest. A vacation to the falls would have been an attractive opportunity for
those who had been sweltering for months in the heat on the prairie.

But the hot and dry conditions were also a cause for alarm
at the headquarters of the TP&W. Over the past couple of decades sparks
thrown from trains crossing the Midwest had been responsible for starting grass
fires which sometimes flared out of control. Deep into a hot and dry summer,
TP&W executives did not want to take any chances with starting another
wildfire.

Their solution was a series of controlled burns along their road.
Crews moved along the TP&W igniting small fires to burn off areas of dry
brush near the tracks, then extinguishing the fires before moving on to the
next site. One of these burn sites was a culvert with a small wooden bridge
near the town of Chatsworth, in Livingston County about 70 miles east of
Peoria. No one can be sure, but historians speculate that the crew might not
have fully extinguished this burn before moving on to the next site.

Photo from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum. 

Continuing eastward through the night, many of the
passengers would have been sleeping, either in their seats in the cars near the
front of the train, or in bunks in the six sleeping cars closer to the back. Running
slightly behind schedule, the train was moving at full speed across the
prairie. Right about midnight it approached the Chatsworth bridge, which straddled
a culvert about 10 feet deep and 15 feet wide located at the bottom of a slight
grade.

“As the train approached this it was running at the rate of
thirty-five miles an hour with a clear track,” reads the
Harper’s Weekly
account of what happened next. “Just before reaching it the engineer of the
forward engine noticed flames licking up through the wooden structure, but too
late to stop the train.”

The first engine made it across the burning bridge, but the
following cars were not as lucky. The trestle gave way just as the second
engine started across, plunging it into the culvert which in turn dragged the
trailing wooden passenger cars down, “cars crashing with terrific force upon one
another, telescoped throughout their length, and piled in splinters over the
broken and burning trestle.”

The sounds of the crash awakened the residents of Chatsworth
who rushed to help. Fire spread through the wreckage and out into the dry grass,
hindering the rescue efforts. The first passenger car to plunge into the
culvert was smashed by the succeeding cars which followed it down. Only four
people were pulled out of it alive. Cars toward the back of the train,
including the sleeping cars, ground to a stop before they too tumbled over the
side.

Firefighters were quickly on the scene, but were not able to
put out the flames as there was no water and no quick-enough way of bringing
any to site of the disaster. Survivors and rescuers alike set to work digging
up the soil with whatever tools they could find, then using the dirt to smother
the flames which were creeping through the wreckage toward those who were
trapped. This fight went on for more than four hours before the flames were
extinguished just before dawn.

“While this was going on amid the shrieks of the injured
victims and the terrors of those who escaped, every effort was made to
extricate the dead, the dying and the wounded,” continues the Harper’s account.
As word spread, rescuers raced to the scene from nearby towns such as Gilman,
Forrest and Piper City. Doctors came from as far away as Peoria in the hours
after the crash. Heroic rescues were commonplace in those hours as injured
people trapped in the debris were extricated before they could be consumed by
the flames. Unfortunately the rescuers could not reach everyone.

A survivor, J.M. Tennery, recalled, “the scene presented to
the eye and ear was one I wish I could forever efface from my memory.”

Harper’s Weekly depiction of the crash. 

The injured were taken to a shelter at the Chatsworth Grand
Ballroom. When it filled up residents took victims into their homes. Survivors
besieged the small town’s telegraph office to send messages to anxious families
and friends back at home. The local school became a morgue for passengers and
crew who were killed in the crash and fire. The
New York Times
would report that, “all the railway horrors in the history
of this country were surpassed three miles east of Chatsworth last night.”

Stories also spread in the hours after the crash of “the
robbery of some of the victims by miserable wretches who were not identified,”
according to Harper’s. This in turn led to suspicion that the fire had been
deliberately set, “for the purpose of wrecking the train and giving opportunity
to plunder the passengers.”

But then more theories about the cause of the fire began to
spread. Just a few paragraphs after a lurid description of robberies, the Times
writer conceded that the fire could have been caused by “a spark from the
furnace of the engine of a train which passed two hours before.”

Harpers, too, shared the question of arson, but added that,
“there was no other evidence to justify this horrible suspicion.”

A death toll from the crash and fire was never conclusively
set, but while accounts from the scene placed it at over 100, most historians
agree that it was between 80 and 85, with about 200 injured. These figures
would place the Chatsworth crash among the five worst U.S. train disasters of
the 19th century.

While the cause of the crash was the collapse of the burning
trestle, the cause of the fire was never firmly established. The speculation of
arson seemed to become more far-fetched with time. Once news became known of
the controlled burns from earlier in the day a consensus formed that the
preventative fire had most likely not been fully extinguished, leading to the
deadly blaze at the Chatsworth bridge.

The disaster also brought about safety changes to passenger
rail in the United States. Many of the fatalities had occurred in a wooden
passenger car which had splintered on impact. Within days the TP&W began
upgrading the strength of its passenger cars, removing wooden cars from the
line and substituting sturdier cars made of steel.Fifty years later, in 1937, nine survivors would join the
people of Chatsworth in a remembrance ceremony which included the singing of the
ballad, “The Bridge was Burned at Chatsworth,” written after the crash.

The state of Illinois dedicated a historical marker at the site in
1954.

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