The Chatsworth crash

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.