One passenger train leaves Chicago’s Union Station at 12:35 p.m. and travels west at 85 miles per hour. Another passenger train leaves Chicago’s Union Station at 12:35 p.m., merges onto the same track, and travels at an identical speed two minutes behind the first. What happens when the lead train abruptly stops and the second doesn’t?
is the fifth largest city in Illinois, a giant and affluent Chicago suburb voted
five years ago as the second best place to live in the entire country. It’s home to well-performing schools, green space, and plenty of jobs. “It’s a suburb that does all the suburban things,” says
UIC urban planning professor Robert Bruegmann, “but slightly better.”
In the mid-1940s, Naperville was vastly different. Not entirely urban or rural, its 5,000 residents worked primarily on farms or at a factory run by the Kroehler Furniture Company
. There was a college on the edge of town, but no hospital. The city still hadn’t razed the Pre-Emption House
—the oldest continuously operating bar in the state and a vestige of Naperville's pioneer roots. And the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad
operated tracks that ran right along 4th Avenue.
On April 26, 1946, around noon, 150 people boarded Burlington’s Advance Flyer, a nine-car “fast train” heading from downtown Chicago to Omaha and Lincoln, Nebraska. Another 175 hopped on the Oakland-bound Exposition Flyer, advertised
as “The Scenic Way to California—Thru the Colorado Rockies and the Feather River Canyon by Daylight.” (The trip took two days, with stops in Denver and Salt Lake City.) At the helm of the second train was W.W. Blaine, a 68-year-old engineer who had worked 40 years at the railroad and had operated diesel locomotives since 1933, the first year they were put in service on his line. To be sure, Blaine was old for his job; the railroad’s standard retirement age was 70. But he had passed all of his signal tests and the Illinois Interstate Commerce Commission ranked Burlington first in safety every year between 1930 and 1944. The passengers on board expected a smooth, relaxing ride into the western plains.
Burlington operated three tracks just west of Chicago’s city limit; the two outside tracks were reserved for freight and commuter trains, while intercity liners used the center track. Since the pair of Flyers were scheduled to depart Chicago at the exact same time, the railroad decided to treat them as one train, letting the Advance Flyer speed along in the lead at a marginally faster pace. Everything went just as planned for about 25 minutes. And then everything went terribly awry
would call it a “caprice of fate” (April 26, 1946). Nobody ever figured out what actually happened. But something
—a small rock, perhaps, or a piece of metal—shot out from the Advance Flyer’s undercarriage, spooking the engineer enough to force an unscheduled stop near the Naperville station. Slowing down to check the running gear so quickly after taking off was an unusual move, and the crew employed every available safeguard to protect its clients, setting the emergency control system into operation and sending flagman James Tangey out the rear car to, in his words, “try to stop the train behind us.”
That proved impossible. Blaine and his Exposition Flyer blew through both a yellow caution and red stop signal, rounded a curve, and roared past Tagney. Blaine’s fireman, a frightened man named E.H. Crayton, saw the parked train in the distance and leapt from the speeding locomotive, only to hit the ground and die instantly upon contact. Blaine stayed inside and leaned on the brake for as long as he could. A mere 90 seconds after The Advanced Flyer rolled to a stop, The Exposition Flyer—chugging along at 45 miles per hour—barreled into its caboose, tore through its roof, and “plunge[d] down with terrific force upon the very floor and trucks of the car” (Tribune
). Blaine’s front wheels were sheared off by the impact. “I never heard anything like it before or since to compare it to,” Jim Dudley, then an eighth grader at a nearby school, told the Tribune
in a 1988 retrospective
. “It was like an explosion.”
Dust, smoke, and debris scattered across the nearby countryside. The smell of ashes hung in the air. “The scene of the disaster,” the Tribune
noted later that day, “was one of twisted and gnarled confusion, with huge luxury passenger coaches strewn across torn tracks like abandoned toy trains.” For a few seconds after the collision, the passengers on board made little noise. Then the shock wore off. “A moment of tragic silence was broken,” the AP wrote
, “by screams and cries for help from the dying and injured.” The rear of The Advanced Flyer absorbed the bulk of the damage—most of those sitting in the rear coach and diner car were killed straightaway. Those seated further up the train escaped the worst, but were rocked nonetheless. “Things happened so fast,” one passenger said, “that I don’t remember what happened to me. I was doubled up suddenly and my knees were pushed against my chest.”
Startled by the clamor, all 800 employees at the Kroehler Furniture factory ran out to help. So did 50 students studying at North Central College. A police officer nearby made a series of frantic phone calls, recruiting doctors, nurses, and ambulances from neighboring towns. Within a matter of minutes, a full-blown rescue crew was assembled. They worked feverishly, but the task of pulling out bodies from the wreckage proved difficult. To reach the injured and dead, the police were forced to burn through the train plates using acetylene torches; eight hours after the crash, the authorities still hadn’t cut through every upturned car.
Those that were fished out were carried into the Kroehler warehouse—set up as a temporary hospital—on mattresses, because Naperville didn’t even own stretchers at the time. Miraculously, Blaine survived, crawling out through his cab’s window before making his way to first aid, where he was treated for a skull fracture. Others weren’t so lucky. Delbert Boon, a sailor from Missouri, was rushed to a hospital in adjacent Aurora, where he sent a cryptic telegram to his parents: “Come and see me. Was in train accident.” He died 30 minutes later.
It took 27 hours to clear one of Burlington’s three tracks, and three days to remove the entirety of the rubble. Thousands of curious locals jammed Naperville’s highways and streets while crews worked to catch a glimpse of the disaster. In total, 47 people eventually lost their lives in the accident, while another 125 were injured. It was, and still is, one of the worst crashes in state history.
So what the hell happened? Burlington surveyed its automatic signal systems right away and found that their lights had indeed functioned properly. From his hospital bed, Blaine—charged with manslaughter by state’s attorney Lee Daniels* to ensure he appeared at an inquest—insisted he saw the yellow caution and applied his brakes at once, but couldn’t slow the train down in time because he was moving too fast and his train was too light. (The Exposition was pulling nine cars that day, instead of its usual haul of 12.)
His crew mates weren’t convinced. At a public hearing set up by Burlington officials (and assailed by Blaine’s lawyer) on April 28, a road foreman testified that he inspected the locomotive shortly after the wreck and found the brake valve in the “service” position, not the “emergency” position. The Exposition’s conductor went so far as to say he noticed “no application of brakes whatsoever.” Brakeman C.W. Norris agreed with the foreman, telling his bosses that “there was never any emergency application the day of the accident.”
To test this hypothesis, the ICC and Burlington ran a series of simulations on the Naperville track a week after the crash, using a diesel train that paralleled The Exposition in length and weight. Speeding along at 85 miles per hour, a different (and younger) engineer applied the brakes immediately when he saw the yellow light and was able to slow his train to a stop 934 feet
from the rear of the standing Advance Flyer. During the final test, in which he applied both service and emergency brakes when he saw the red light, he still nearly avoided contact, stopping with the engine and just one car past the collision point. The evidence did not reflect well on Blaine.
In the end, though, the embattled engineer was absolved of major blame by both the ICC and a DuPage County grand jury. In an October verdict, the latter declined to take action against the Burlington railroad or the crews of either train, instead charging everyone involved with nine “negligent acts,” ranging from improper scheduling to poor intercommunication between conductors. Rule changes followed: the ICC mandated in 1951 that trains were only permitted to exceed 79 miles per hour if automatic train stop equipment
was in place, and most rail agencies still don’t mix cars of different weights on the same train. Blaine retired shortly thereafter.
Cult street photographer Charles Cushman
was on hand to document the grisly scene. His photos, along with the rest of his work, are hosted online
by Indiana University. Also keep an eye out for Naperville resident Chuck Spinner’s upcoming book
, which will detail the stories of the victims.
would later serve as the Speaker of the House in Illinois.
Derrick Rose needs to get healthy, quickly. Chicago’s star guard has missed over 40 percent of his team’s games this season because of nagging injuries, the latest of which is causing a wave of panic to wash over otherwise-optimistic Bulls fans who fear that bumps and bruises could spoil what’s been a dominant season thus far. Sure, the Bulls carry the deepest bench
in the league, yet a poor run of form
(and common sense) suggests their GQ cover boy
must play at a high level if they have any shot at winning the NBA title. “I’m just trying to survive,” Rose joked
earlier this week. So are we, Derrick. So are we.
Thankfully, Rose and other modern athletes now have at their disposal a ton of sophisticated medical procedures and medications to help the body heal, from physical therapy and acupuncture to cortisone injections and advanced surgeries. Professionals—whose livelihood depends on proper functioning arms and legs—will even spend thousands and thousands of dollars on remedies that have not yet passed clinical trials, like the injectable anti-inflammatory drug Toradol
, in which the “patient's own tissues are extracted, carefully manipulated, and then reintroduced to the body.” There are obvious risks in stepping back onto the field or court after undergoing experimental treatments—just ask the owners of drugged thoroughbreds.
But with the biological clock ticking, the more options available, the better.
Dr. George Bennett, a sports medicine pioneer, would be thrilled to see these innovations. Born in the Catskill Mountains in 1885, Bennett was himself a solid baseball player, landing a roster spot on a local semi-pro team by the age of 16. (Friends later described him as a “rather undisciplined little tough guy.”) But medicine was Bennett’s true passion. After high school, he worked a series of odd jobs throughout the Midwest, stashing away his earnings to pay for medical school tuition. Bennett eventually matriculated at the University of Maryland, graduated in 1908, and landed a job at the Johns Hopkins Hospital two years later. He was 25.
It was an interesting time for a sports fan to enter the field, such as it was. “Sports medicine,” as we understand it today, was in no way a recognized discipline. In the locker room, “it was considered effete and unnecessary to have a doctor in attendance” (Washington Post
; March 10, 1962), and trainers—most of whom had no science background—applied the lion’s share of treatments, which often meant rubbing sore muscles with balms. At the same time, doctors were starting to use x-rays with more regularity, producing detailed images of the body without having to penetrate the skin physically. If an entrepreneurial physician studied how the athlete’s body works and used that knowledge to create procedures that sped up recovery times, he could give daring ballplayers a competitive advantage while making a tidy profit for himself.
So Bennett poured over x-rays, starting with baseball pitchers. And what he found was troubling. While baseball players were subject to the same disabilities of the average laborer, repeating the overhand throwing motion over and over did increase by a wide margin the frequency of degenerative joint injuries. The ligaments, tendons, and muscles in the human arm are just not designed to exert the pressure necessary to propel a baseball 60 feet at rapid speeds, much less make it curve in flight. "Pitching,” Bennett would famously say
, “is a most unnatural motion.”
Bennett penned an article in the American Physical Education Review
in 1925 laying out the case in plan details that pitching can create long-term structural damage. He followed that piece up with another influential article in 1941, titled “Shoulder and Elbow Lesions of the Professional Baseball Pitcher
,” that included x-ray photos and a controversial suggestion that pitchers should use the side-arm delivery (like Walter Johnson
) to lengthen their careers. It seems obvious now, but the conclusion was revelatory at the time; pitcher workloads didn’t begin to drop dramatically
until the mid-1920s, after Bennett’s first paper was published.
While he studied joints in the lab, Bennett simultaneously built a successful practice, which he would leave Johns Hopkins to run full-time in 1947. Over time, the doctor garnered what sports columnist Red Smith called “the enviable and deserved reputation for remantling athletes” (Baltimore Sun
; May 28, 1950). Famous ballplayers liked him for a number of reasons: he was clearly bright, he took sports seriously, and he was not afraid to take orthopedic chances if his client requested it of him. Most importantly, he kept his mouth shut; an AP reporter once joked that the only two words the humble Bennett ever said in public were “operation successful.”
Over the course of his career, Bennett opened up stars like Joe DiMaggio, Dizzy Dean, Lefty Gomez, Pee Wee Reese, and Johnny Unitas.* (Clark Cable and Lord Halifax sought out his counsel, too.) With the help of a colleague at Hopkins, he also invented
the first batting helmet, a hat designed with a specialty zipper pocket that held two hard plastic slabs
. And once in a while, he worked miracles.
The career of Roy Sievers
(pictured above) is an instructive example. A hulking left fielder, Sievers won the American League Rookie of the Year award in 1949, hitting .306 and slugging 16 home runs for the St. Louis Browns. But in 1951, after struggling during his sophomore season, he broke his right collarbone diving for a ball in the outfield. The next spring, he dislocated the same shoulder making a throw across the diamond. His career appeared finished. Then Sievers visited Bennett. In what the doctor described as “an experiment,” he drilled a hole in Sievers’ bone, cut his tendons, slipped them through the opening, and knotted them together on the other side to keep the bone from rolling out of the shoulder socket. The procedure drastically limited Sievers’ throwing power, forcing a positional move to first base. While supportive of the initial operation, Browns president Bill Veeck and his colleagues in the front office weren’t convinced he would return to form, so they shuffled him off to Washington in a trade for the unremarkable Gil Coan.
This turned out to be a mammoth mistake; Sievers gradually redeveloped strength in his arm and subsequently took the majors by storm, blasting over 20 home runs in nine straight seasons. His best year came in 1957, when Sievers finished third in the AL MVP race, logging 42 home runs and an on-base plus slugging percentage of .967. According to Bennett, Sievers’ recovery was a “miracle of modern medicine” (Washington Post
; September 20, 1957). The Senator agreed; during an awards dinner for Bennett the following year, Sievers came up to the doctor with a tear in his eye and thanked him for saving his career. Red Smith aptly described Bennett’s enduring reputation: “This sort of thing has become such a familiar story—the halt and lame of sports have been shuffling off to Baltimore for so long now and in such numbers—that a newspaper reader might be excused if he got the notion that Dr. Bennett had invented the practice of medicine.”
Bennett died in 1962,
so he didn’t get to see the creative surgical work of the doctors who followed in his wake. That includes Frank Jobe, who successfully repaired Tommy Johns’ shoulder and launched
a medical revolution. But his impact on sports, and the medical profession more broadly, was undeniable. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell might even want to revisit the doctor’s thoughts on football, broadcast in an AP interview on December 18, 1947. “The present helmet is simply equipping a player with armor and the steel mask in front is an open invitation to crush someone’s jaw or knock his teeth out,” he said. “The toll of injuries will continue to mount unless the face mask is legislated out of the game immediately.”
Prescient words from a thoughtful man.
*“After listening to that all-star team of players Dr. Bennett has mended,” Joe Garagiola said at an awards dinner in 1958, “I’m sort of sorry I didn't break my leg."
If you’re into history or genealogy, or just get a kick out of rummaging through government documents, Monday was an exciting day. That’s because the U.S. National Archives released complete records
from the 1940 U.S. Census and made the entire set, for the first time in history, accessible online and free of charge.
The data dump is a blessing for the caretakers of family trees, who can now mine that census for personal information about family members who passed on before their progeny could jot down key biographical facts. It’s also a long time coming; while aggregate statistics for cities or counties are published without restrictions as soon as they are available, specific records pertaining to individual citizens are sealed from the public, by law, for 72 years.
If that seems like a random amount of time to keep the decennial findings hidden, it kind of is. Sixty years ago, in an attempt to mollify both civil libertarians and statisticians who thought the value of the census was dependent upon confidentiality, Census Bureau Director Roy Peel and U.S. Archivist Wayne Grover wrote an informal rule
(later codified by Congress) that forced the government to keep particulars under lock and key for seven decades. In 1952, female life expectancy in the States was 71.6 years
. According to their logic, very few people would still be living who had participated in the census 72 years earlier, so any harm caused by the disclosure would be minimal. As it turns out, female life expectancy is now 79.5 years, and 21 million Americans alive in 1940 are still kicking today, a full 16 percent of those counted that year. Luckily, few have complained about a breach of privacy. Most, like 100-year-old Verla Morris
, seem to enjoy the novelty of reading their name in America’s history book.
Back in the late-1800s, it took years to tabulate the census results at all. Bureaucrats didn’t put to bed the 1880 census until 1887, and they knew finishing the 1890 census by 1900, when Congress was constitutionally required to reapportion district boundaries, would be even tougher. Not only was the nation’s population expanding by about 25 percent each decade, but the Census Office added a series of new questions to the document, including queries about home ownership, war service, and race. Counting the data by hand, as they had done for a full century, wasn’t going to cut it.Herman Hollerith
knew just how inefficient the process was. Born to German immigrants in Buffalo, the eccentric Hollerith graduated in 1879 with an engineering degree from the Columbia University School of Mines and followed one of his professors into the Census Office, where he watched in horror as his new colleagues slogged through an endless pile of paper forms, one by one. Hollerith wanted desperately for the government to organize its records mechanically, thereby saving time and reducing errors. He just needed to figure out how best to do it.
Inspiration struck, as it so often does, on the train. As Hollerith recalls
, he was taking a ride out from Washington when he watched a conductor use a punch card to certify a passenger’s ticket. That got him thinking: what if the government could transfer census questionnaires onto a punch card, with each hole representing a different data point (location, gender, occupation), and then feed the cards into an electrical machine that tallied the results? After five years of trial and error, the engineer finally figured out a design
that worked. Using the same principles as a Jacquard loom
, his prototype featured a series of tiny cups, all filled with mercury and connected to a wire nail. Each cup corresponded with a different hole on the punch card. When the card was inserted and the machine was set into motion, any punched hole would provide empty space in which the nail and mercury could interact like a circuit, thereby setting of an electrical charge. Those charges were sent to the machine’s dashboard, which contained a series of clock-like dials. All the census worker had to do was plug in a card, mark down which dials moved, take it out, and grab the next one.
Hollerith filed his first patent in 1884 and tested the gadget
in Baltimore three years later. His old colleagues were impressed with the results and offered him a contract when they reopened for business in 1890. It was a profitable decision. Using the electrical invention, the Census Office was able to analyze more information in a shorter amount of time (five years) and at a discount to taxpayers (an estimated $5 million). “This apparatus works unerringly as the mills of the gods,” The Electrical Engineer
wrote in November 1891, “but beats them hollow as to speed.”
Government officials may have been impressed with their new machine, but they were awfully cavalier with the documents it eventually tabulated. At the turn of the century, it was the job of individual agencies to maintain their own records, and some were more careful than others. Short on space in their vaults, archivists in the Commerce Department opted to stack the voluminous 1890 census neatly on pine shelves in their building’s basement. Few questioned the decision until January 10, 1921, when building fireman James Foster noticed smoke spewing through openings around some pipes that ran from the boiler room into the file room. Minutes later, another watchman upstairs smelled something burning in the men’s bathroom. Both made their way downstairs, where they ran right into an inferno. The pair pulled the house alarm, evacuated the office, and then watched as “five alarms quickly brought every piece of apparatus in downtown Washington to the scene” (New York Times
, January 11, 1921). It took 20 hoses and two-and-a-half hours to extinguish the unfortunate blaze.
It was impossible to determine how long the fire had burned before anyone noticed, nor was it clear what set it off in the first place. (An errant cigarette is one potential culprit.) But the damage it caused was obvious. Kellee Blake, who wrote a big piece
on the incident for Prologue
, called it ”an archivist's nightmare.” One-quarter of the 1890 census burned instantly. Another 50 percent suffered heavy smoke and water damage. Census Bureau Clerk T. J. Fitzgerald told reporters the morning after that Hollerith’s data was "certain to be absolutely ruined” (Washington Post
, January 11, 1921). And without modern preservation technology, the salvageable remains further deteriorated in the temporary storage space to which they were relocated. Today, only about 6,000 names
from the almost 63 million census returns exist, a fact that frustrates genealogists to this day.
If there’s a silver lining to the story, it’s that the fire helped convince enough people in the capital that it would be useful to store important documents in a centralized and safe location. In 1926, Congress appropriated $1 million for an archival building, and eight years later, President Roosevelt signed a law
establishing the National Archives as an independent agency. Hollerith, meanwhile, took the proceeds from his government contract and formed the Tabulating Machine Company, which would eventually change its name to the International Business Machines Corporation. He never became a rich man—the engineer did not get along with the company’s top salesman, Thomas Watson
, and stepped aside from day-to-day operations in 1921—but his work revolutionized the field of information processing.
For more on that original contraption, be sure to read this article
Hollerith wrote in 1890 describing its mechanics. The illustrations are particularly charming.