200 Years of Illinois: Disaster in Naperville

One of the state’s lesser-known catastrophes, the Naperville Train Crash on April 25, 1946 marked a turning point in the town’s history. In those days half-rural, with some of its pioneer-era buildings still standing, Naperville bore little resemblance to its current incarnation as Illinois’s second-largest city, bustling and ever-growing, the most suburban of suburbs that, not long ago, a national magazine declared the second-best place to live in the United States.

It happened this way. The Advance Flyer, bound for Lincoln, Nebraska, left Chicago’s Union Station at 12:35 p.m. A second train, the Exposition Flyer, left at the same time and merged onto the same track two miles behind the first. The Exposition Flyer carried 175 passengers bound for Denver, Salt Lake City, and Oakland. The Advance Flyer ran slightly faster to maintain distance from the train trailing it, no big deal in the railroad world of the day.

As the Advance Flyer neared Naperville, a ping or a noise or a rattle prompted its engineer to make an unscheduled stop for possible repairs. The trainmen and the railroad put the warning system in motion to stop the Exposition Flyer, and a study of the automatic signal system after the fact made it clear everything was functioning. James Tagney, a flagman, ran down the tracks to wave down the trailing train. For whatever reason, the Exposition Flyer ignored the stop signal, passed Tagney, and rounded a bend. There, the engineer pulled the brake while the fireman leapt off the Exposition Flyer in a panic. The second train hit the first at approximately forty-five miles per hour.

Quoting the Chicago Tribune:

The scene of the disaster was one of twisted and gnarled confusion, with huge luxury passenger coaches strewn across torn tracks like abandoned toy trains.  But it was a grim scene, with sudden death its background.

“We were going too fast,” admitted W. W. Blaine, 68, of Galesburg, Knox county, veteran engineer of the Exposition Flyer.  He said that he was going 85 miles an hour when he noticed the first of two warning signals, but that although he applied his brakes at once he had too little distance to stop in time.

Charles Cushman, the celebrated amateur photographer, happened to be in Naperville that day and took a number of color images.