Naperville is the fifth largest city in Illinois, a giant and affluent Chicago suburb voted by Money 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.
The Tribune 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.
*His grandson would later serve as the Speaker of the House in Illinois.