More Wreck Articles Page 4


October 11, 1999
From The  Pantagraph
By Nancy Steele Brokaw
For The Pantagraph
CHATSWORTH: For more than a century, this town of 1,300 has been famous for a fiery train crash that still ranks among the worst railroad disasters in American history. But before the crash, Chatsworth was best-known for 5,000 acres planted not in corn or oats, but in -----sugar beets!  
The Kickapoo Indians first inhabited the Chatsworth area, referred to as Kickapoo Grove, when the earliest European settler, Franklin Oliver, arrived in 1832. As the Kickapoo departed, Oliver and his family were left alone with the plentiful deer and prairie wolves. Other settlers began arriving in the 1850's, and the area became known as Oliver's Grove. 
In 1859, the name was changed to Chatsworth. Several stories exist about the name's origin, but the most popular involves W.H. Osborn, one time president of the Illinois Central Railroad. Legend has it that Osborn named Chatsworth to honor the Duke of Devonshire in England who had substantial interest in railroads. The Duke's large and ornate estate was known as the House of Chatsworth.  
In 1857, Toledo, Peoria and Western began running trains regularly through Chatsworth and the town began to grow, incorporating in 1887. (This date should read 1867) The first large business to open was the Germania Sugar Co., which built a large factory complete with a smokestack that was, at that time, the largest in the state, according to L. J. Haberkorn's book, "History of Chatsworth".  
According to Haberkorn, Germania Sugar bought 5,000 acres of land east and south of the village, and planted it all in sugar beets. At one time, Germania employed more than 500 men and women in the fields and factory. The enterprise failed, however, because the beet sugar factory required more water than its drilling was able to supply. 
The legacy of Germania Sugar lives on in the original Chatsworth one-room schoolhouse, built in 1858. The school was restored in 1975 and is still referred to as Beet School. Not surprisingly, it is painted beet red.  
In 1967, Chatsworth residents celebrated their centennial with what was billed as "Illinois Largest Birthday Cake". A half-ton cake was baked in the huge ovens of Chatsworth's American Screen Products Co. The cake, containing 300 pounds of sugar and 160 pounds of shortening, was pronounced "as good as Grandma's" by samplers.  
"The Great Train Wreck" 
Just before midnight on Aug. 10, 1887, a train packed with honeymooners and families bound for Niagara Falls would meet a fiery end just outside of Chatsworth. Coach after coach plunged through a burning trestle into a mounting pile of splintered wood and mangled bodies.  
Some details of that night will never be known with certainty, such as the exact death count or the origin of the fire that burned the bridge. But this much is known--the horrendous fate of the vacation-bound revelers brought out the best (and the worst) in people, and the terrible crash would make Chatsworth nationally known.  
The Toledo, Peoria and Western train was an "excursion train" bound for Niagara Falls, a popular spot for honeymooners as well as families. At Peoria, the train combined with another train. Later, testimony showed that the TP&W superintendent requested the train travel as two sections rather than one long train. The request was not granted, and two engines pulled the long, heavy train as it stopped in El Paso, Chenoa and finally Chatsworth, picking up more passengers.  
Coaches were added as the train moved along, so the exact number of cars and passengers are not known. Early telegraphed figures indicated 16 coaches, others put the number at 20. Between 650 and 700 passengers were aboard.  
Chatsworth historian Louise Stoutemyer, in her book, "The Train That Never Arrived", wrote of the people who boarded the train that night. "On board the fatal train were newlyweds, families with children, women with babies, elderly couples, single persons, a youth group known as "Parker's Juvenile Brass Band", and a quartet from Peoria; all were bent on having a good time."  
The train was due in Chatsworth at 10:33 P.M., but it arrived around midnight, 90 minutes late. No doubt the passengers were anxious to get out of the drought and heat wave that had been baking Illinois for weeks. The temperatures had been well over 100 degrees for most of July, The Vermillion River had all but dried up. Grasses and crops were tinder-dry. Brush fires were frequent.  
Because of the dryness, TP&W worker Timothy Coughlin had received instructions the day of the accident to carry out controlled burning along the tracks, an effort to prevent train sparks from igniting fires.  
Pulling out of Chatsworth, the engineers were anxious to make up lost time. So, as the train came over a small rise and approached the bridge, it may have been traveling as fast as 40 mph, a high speed in that day. Because the rails were still in place, the engineer didn't realize until the last minute that the bridge he was about to cross was burning. The speed and the weight of the train made it impossible to stop.  
The bridge had been burning slowly for several hours and rested only on charred embers. The first engine made it safely across and stayed on the tracks. The second engine made it across but landed on its side in a ditch. Its engineer was killed instantly, the wreck's first fatality.  
One after another, the train's wooden coaches plunged into the ditch, 10 feet below. The cars splintered on impact, telescoping one another with their loads of human freight. The tangled mass of wreckage was 200 feet long, 50 feet wide and 30 feet high with the roof of one sleeping car standing like a spire above the others.  
The 100th anniversary booklet of the train wreck describes the scene this way: "As each of the wrecked cars shot across the creek, the top of the front car was sheared off, beheading the passengers in their seats and driving the dead and injured into charnel heaps at the front of the car. The heavy coach timbers were driven like arrows through human bodies."  
The engine from the first locomotive unhooked the engine and sent his fireman on to Piper City to give the alarm. At the other end of the wreck, the brakeman ran the 2 1/2 miles back to Chatsworth to call for help.  
Passengers from the rear cars that did not go over the embankment rushed forward to help. Survivors grabbed buckets and scooped up dirt from the roadbeds to try and extinguish the fires. One man begged to be short -- his family had all been killed. Later, he managed to find a gun and shot himself.  
Cries for help continued for hours, screaming out into the blackness of the night, across the parched oat stubble fields. 
Medical Efforts 
Doctors, nurses and volunteer rescue workers mobilized quickly as messages went out over the telegraph. A rescue train from Forrest arrived at 12:45 a.m. More help followed.  
Unfortunately, so did vandals. A Pantagraph story reported that "Vandals were at work shortly after the wreck. Many of them went through the coaches going through the pockets of injured persons or robbing those pinned beneath the wreckage and unable to help themselves." Stripped by the vandals, some of the bodies were difficult to identify. Later, some speculated that it was the vandals who had deliberately burned the bridge.  
Note: This was later proven not to be totally true, as the accident has been investigated many times by many people.
The dead and dying were carried into the fields. Women, many of them passengers in their best frocks and bonnets, tried to minister to them in the feeble flicker of a few oil lamps. The rescue operation was crippled by a violent thunderstorm which broke loose around 3 a.m.  
Chatsworth became the center of operations. Nearly everyone helped, in whatever capacity they could. Elderly carpenters, not able to walk to the wreck, had the job of improvising stretchers from planks of wood and fabric that women combed their houses to supply.  
The Chatsworth town hall and schoolhouse were quickly filled with the dying and the dead. Blackboards were used to record the names. Men worked furiously to construct rough boxes for the shipment of bodies.  
Figures vary as to how many passengers lost their lives that night. the most accepted figure is 85, although it's hard to say how many died later of injuries. The number of injured has been reported to be in the 200-300 range. 
Within five days of the wreck, the crash site was pretty well cleaned out. People scrambled for souvenirs-- a spittoon, a coupling link, maybe a broken lantern. Those keepsakes were treasured and passed down in families. 
Timothy Coughlin, the TP&W worker in charge of the controlled burning along the railroad tracks near Chatsworth, was arrested. Testimony indicated that Coughlin had his men burn closer to the trestle bridge than he should have, especially considering there was a strong wind and bales of hay were stored in the gully under the bridge. Perhaps a few live sparks were left. One thing was certain -- the midnight the bridge had been burning for some time.  
The coroner's jury found Coughlin guilty of "gross and criminal carelessness", and he was hauled off to Pontiac prison. Coughlin remained in jail until mid-October, when a grand jury failed to indict him. Coughlin later continued working on the railroad, though not for the TP&W. 
Site Manager(Timothy Coughlin was later exonerated of any wrong doing and found not guilty.)  
In the aftermath of the Chatsworth wreck, Pullman, the leading manufacturer of railroad cars, began building them out of steel instead of wood, to help prevent crushing and fire. The TP&W settled practically all of its damage cases privately. The railroad paid out claims totaling $305,000 ----- an average of $600 per passenger.  
A plaque memorializing the accident was erected by the state of Illinois in 1954. It stands next to U.S. 24, two miles east of Chatsworth, just north of the site where the Niagara Excursion train hit a burning bridge and the passengers went from celebration to sorrow in a moment's time.  

August 5, 2007
The Pantagraph

1887 train wreck near Chatsworth one of worst in U.S.

Pantagraph, The (Bloomington, IL) - Sunday, August 5, 2007
Author: Bill Kemp;Archivist/LibrarianMcLean County Museum of History
CHATSWORTH - Friday marks the 120th anniversary of the Chatsworth Train Wreck, one of the deadliest railroad accidents in U.S. history. 

On Aug. 10, 1887, an eastbound Toledo, Peoria & Western Railroad train trundled out of Peoria and through Eureka and Chenoa. It was filled with about 700 vacationers taking advantage of a special offer to visit the scenic wonder of Niagara Falls. It took two steam engines to pull the long line of wooden coaches.  

The wreck occurred several minutes before midnight near Chatsworth, a small community in southeast Livingston County. Unbeknownst to the TP&W, a fire earlier that day had damaged a small bridge that crossed a dry creek bed. Although the bridge remained standing, the wooden trestle was deeply charred and unable to support the weight of the oncoming train.  

It had been a hot and dry summer. On the day of the wreck, the TP&W, fearing sparks from its steam engines could ignite brush fires, ordered a section crew to undertake controlled burns along its line. One such burn occurred near the doomed bridge, and in all likelihood, the crew failed to completely extinguish the fire.  

Just east of Chatsworth, the train followed a sloping grade, and as it approached the bridge its speed reached some 40 mph. The first engine managed to cross safely as the bridge collapsed behind it. The second engine rolled onto its side, and as each wooden passenger car flew across the creek bed it piled - or "telescoped" - into the car ahead. The sleeper cars in the rear were tossed about, but came to a halt before reaching the bridge. 

The smoldering mass of steel, splintered wood and mangled bodies beggared all description. "Instantly the air was filled with the cries of the wounded and the shrieks of those about to die," reported the Chicago Times in the lurid prose of the day. "The groans of men and the screams of women united to make an appalling sound, and above all could be heard the agonizing cries of little children as in some instances they lay pinned alongside their dead parents."  

J.M. Tennery was on the first sleeper, which ended up balanced over the creek bed, its passengers shaken but alive. "I got out in safety," he recalled, "and the scene presented to the eye and ear was one I wish I could forever efface from my memory."  

With more than 80 dead, the Chatsworth Train Wreck probably ranks as the second- or third-deadliest U.S rail accident in the 19th century. 

Many of the dead and dying were transported to Chatsworth. "Charnel houses and hospitals make up tonight what has been the peaceful village of Chatsworth," noted one newspaper account.  

The wreck was a national story, and The New York Times devoted almost half its front page to the tragedy. The Pantagraph was the first newspaper to break the story, thanks to the work of telegraph editor William McCambridge.

Much about that night remains shrouded in mystery, and some of the basic facts remain contested, such as the number of cars pulled by the two steam engines. Even the final death toll is unknown, with some accounts settling on 81 and others placing the tally at 85.  

Four days later, a Sunday, the railroad had gathered most of the debris into an enormous funeral pyre. "A match was touched to the mass and in a few hours heaps of ashes hid whatever secrets the wreck still contained," reported The Bulletin, another Bloomington daily newspaper. "A smell of burning flesh from time to time filled the air."  

The wreck is said to have spurred safety improvements in the railroad industry, most notably the increased use of steel in the construction of passenger cars.  

Not long after the disaster, Thomas P. Westendorf wrote the ballad "The Bridge Was Burned at Chatsworth" (it's also known as "The Chatsworth Wreck").  

The 50th anniversary memorial service on Aug. 11, 1937, in Chatsworth, included nine survivors from that terrible night. The service concluded with the singing of Westendorf's song.

A mighty crash of timbers, a sound of hissing steam;

The groans and cries of anguish, a woman's stifled scream.

The dead and dying mingled with the broken beams and bars;  

An awful human carnage, a dreadful wreck of cars. 


Read the Obituary of S.H. Davis, the first man to arrive on the scene of the wreck on this page.


This is a blog written by Dan Brekke that I reprint with his permission

III. Wrecked

We drove through Lexington to start the drive back toward Chicago. On the way out to Pleasant Hill, Chris had pointed out the placards on every telephone poll downtown bearing the names of local soldiers serving in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Chris counted 19 names. The town has about 2,000 residents, so roughly 1 percent of the population is serving. We fueled up at the Freedom gas station -- just $2.899 a gallon -- then headed north on old U.S. 66 to Chenoa. I wanted to take U.S. 24 east to Interstate 57 both because I knew there was a Dairy Queen along the way (in Fairbury) -- my dad's favorite road-trip stop -- and because I remembered a little piece of local history along the way: the Chatsworth Wreck. 

Back in the mid-70s, I stopped to read a historical marker just outside Chatsworth, one of the series of farm towns strung along U.S. 24. It reads:

MIDNIGHT, AUGUST 10-11, 1887

One-half mile north on the Toledo, Peoria & Western Railroad occurred one of the worst wrecks in American rail history. An excursion train - two engines and approximately twenty wooden coaches - from Peoria to Niagara Falls, struck a burning culvert . Of the 500 passengers about 85 perished and scores were injured. 

We stopped at the DQ in Fairbury, then continued on through Chatsworth to the wreck marker, which is about two and a half miles east of town, nearly on the Livingston-Ford county line. One thing that's a little unclear when you're at the roadside, though, is exactly where the disaster occurred. The TP&W tracks -- the railroad still goes by that name -- are a half mile north of the highway. I wanted to see if we could find the site of the notorious "burning culvert" -- actually, a small wooden trestle. I imagined there could be a memorial or marker at the spot where the train left the tracks.

We parked at an electrical substation near the railroad's marked but unguarded level crossing. My sense, based on the marker's placement west of the section road that runs up the county line was that the wreck site was west of the road, too. Chris and I walked along the single track until we got to a culvert maybe a quarter-mile west of the road. It's not deep -- in fact, it's a narrow ditch that crosses under the track through an 8- or 10-foot-diameter steel pipe. The site is unprepossessing, just like every foot of track east or west of it to the horizon, and there was nothing to suggest we were at the scene of a sensational event.

After we walked back to the car and started east again on 24, Chris and I spotted another culvert -- this one an actual trestle -- just east of the county line. We turned around and hiked out to it, too. It's a much more satisfying place for a calamity: The tracks cross a bridge that's about 75 feet long and a good 20 feet above a sluggish little creek. We agreed that between the two possible sites, this seemed the more likely.

Back at home, I poked around online to see if I could find some account that sheds light on the wreck's precise location. Chatsworth had a newspaper, the Plaindealer, in 1887, and much more recently, a retired teacher and local historian there, Helen Louise Plaster Stoutemyer, published a book on the disaster, "The Train that Never Arrived." Eventually, I came across a Chatsworth native's website that includes the Plaindealer's first account of the tragedy. The story says the train left the tracks at "the first bridge west of the county line" -- the first place Chris and I looked. In addition to offering the salient facts, the writer has a lot to say about the impression the wreck left: 

"The sight was most terrible. ... It was too horrible to admit of description.  The screams and moans of the wounded were heartrending, and the terror of the sight can not be imagined. ... To add to the terror of the scene a heavy thunder and lightening storm came up, and , with heavy rain made such a scene as would appall the bravest hearts. ... Even the strongest men were forced to tears as they heard and saw the anguish of the unhappy excursionists.  While many displayed strong courage, grit, and heroism, others were almost frantic, and those in attendance upon them were forced to hold them to prevent acts of insanity and self-destruction." 

If you like the newspaper's rendition, then you'll love the song: "The Chatsworth Wreck."

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(Pictures: Left: The marker, east of Chatsworth on U.S. 24. Middle: Wreck candidate site A  (west of the railroad crossing 2.5 miles east of Chatworth; north end of culvert is just visible on far left). Right: Wreck candidate site B -- east of the crossing.)

IV. Wrecked Again

After investigating the site of the 1887 trackside carnage, we turned east again on U.S. 24. The highway crosses Interstate 57 at Gilman, then crosses Highway 1, which follows an old trapper's trail from the Wabash River up to Chicago, at a town called Watseka. I was curious to see Watseka, which I've passed through exactly once: In the autumn of 1966, when Dad took us on a long-weekend trip down to the Smoky Mountains and back. I remember going through there late on a Thursday night that ended at a Holiday Inn just outside Indianapolis.

As we started to get close, I asked Dad and Chris whether they remembered the big disaster that had happened in Watseka around 1970. It didn't ring a bell with them. I recounted the big blast and fire in town -- apparently some kind of gas explosion -- and an image I still vividly remembered. A fireball rising far above the old-fashioned town water tower.

A couple minutes later, a town came into view. There was a newish water tower rising up in the middle of town. I thought I was looking at Watseka, and said something like, "See, that must be the replacement for the old water tower." Chris was driving, and noticed the town limit sign: Crescent City. He spotted a historical marker on the left side of the road. As we passed, he asked whether we should stop. Yes, let's. We went back, and the marker turned out to be a small pavilion with some displays. In fact, a big blowup of the picture I had described -- water tower, fireball -- was the centerpiece in one of the displays. Somehow I had transferred the disaster -- which occurred June 21, 1970 -- to the next town over.

The cataclysm involved the same railroad that ran its train off the tracks in Chatsworth in 1887, the Toledo, Peoria & Western. Several liquified propane tank cars derailed in the center of Crescent City on Father's Day morning. The town fire department responded and fought for an hour to prevent an explosion before the first car finally went off. At that point, according to a hand-written reminiscence that's part of the memorial, "the boys retreated and let fate take its course." Sixty-four people were hurt (mostly firefighters who suffered second- and third-degree burns), none killed; the center of Crescent City was obliterated. The president of the TP&W issued a statement accepting responsibility for the blast and apologizing for "the inconvenience."

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Report on Wreck Reunion  in Times magazine
Transport: Oh! How Much of Sorrow!

Grand Excursion, Wednesday, August 10th, Peoria, Ill. to NIAGARA FALLS and return for only $10.00 for the round trip. Come and be with us on this wonderful excursion trip. 

Thus read placards posted in stations of the Toledo, Peoria & Western R. R. 50 years ago last week. Some 750 people from Peoria and nearby towns made reservations. A train dispatcher took along his bride. A superintendent of the T. P. & W. attached his private car, invited a party of friends. Sixteen coaches hauled by two locomotives were necessary to accommodate the crowd. Setting gaily forth, the train presently reached tiny Chatsworth. Ill., took on six more passengers, chugged out of the station at 11:35 p. m. Some two miles outside the town it approached a small wooden culvert over a 10-ft. ditch. As the train rounded a knoll just before the bridge, Engineer David Southerland in the first engine suddenly screamed in horror to Fireman Rodgers: "My God! The bridge is burned! Jump for your life!" 

The fireman promptly jumped, escaped with minor bruises. Engineer Southerland. seeing he could not stop in time, signaled frantically to Engineer McClintock in the second locomotive, then pulled his throttle wide open, tore loose from his train and hurtled onto the culvert. The engine carried across the bridge even as it crumpled, safely reached solid tracks beyond. But the second locomotive and the whole train behind piled up in the ditch. Eleven of the wooden cars telescoped or were splintered to matchwood. There was no fire, but when rescuers from Chatsworth reached the spot they found 81 dead, 372 injured —Illinois' worst railroad wreck. 

No blame went to Engineer Southerland since his action was the best course to save the train. When an engine is torn loose, air brakes lock on the other cars, which can be stopped quicker with the engine's weight and momentum detached. Engineer Southerland kept his job until his death two years ago. About eight years ago the railroad was acquired by the Van Sweringen interests, taken out of receivership.

Last week, on the anniversary of the accident, tiny Chatsworth (pop. 1,100) held a memorial service in the Village Park. Seventy-five-year-old Louis Joseph Haberkorn, one of the first to reach the scene, presided, introduced nine survivors. Service ended with singing of the ballad The Bridge Was Burned at Chatsworth, written shortly after the wreck by one T. P. Westendorf, whose initials are the same as the unlucky railroad's. Excerpt:

From City, Town and Hamlet—

They came, a happy throng—

To view the great Niagara—

With joy they sped along—


But oh! how much of sorrow!

And oh! how much of pain—

Awaited those who journeyed

On that fated railway train. . . .

A mighty crash of timbers,

A sound of hissing steam—

The groans and cries of anguish—

A woman's stifled scream—

The dead and dying mingled

With broken beams and bars;

An awful human carnage,

A dreadful wreck of cars. . . .



 "Life in Chatsworth"
by Catherine Bigham Brode
This is her account of the wreck.
Page 90-91
 One bright August morning, to be exact, August 1 1, 1887, a young man started on his way to work, merrily whistling. He had not gone far before he sensed that this was no ordinary morning; he met no one on the walk; no one passed by on the road; there were no friendly greetings from the homes. When he came to the livery stable all was quiet as at midnight. There were no busy men about the lumber yard, no sorrel horse nor spotted dog in sight. He began to wonder if he had mistaken the day. Could it possibly be Sunday? He came to the railroad station from the rear and passing the end of the building he came upon a sight that fairly froze his blood.  
There on the platform was a long row of figures, scores of dead men, shrouded in sheets. Stumbling into the station, he asked the cause of that awful sight and was told that the evening before a great excursion train had been wrecked and burned a few miles east of the town. 
Over 80 persons were killed and more than 250 were injured. The sound of the fire alarm and the ringing of  the church bells had brought out all the villagers.  
They had worked throughout the long hours of the night, rescuing the living and removing the dead from the wreckage. The town hall, the school house and one church were filled with the injured and many sufferers were taken into homes. When all had been done that could be done, the weary, exhausted townsmen had gone to their homes at about the hour they usually began their daily tasks. It is easily understandable why the dead were left on the platform; no coffins were available in the town. These had to be brought from the city. The Sabbath calm was not for long. As the news of the disaster spread, the little town was literally swamped with people, many of them coming out of curiosity. Some gathered up big bolts and odd pieces of iron from the burned cars and took them home for souvenirs! The next Sunday evening Union Memorial Services were held in one of the churches. One of the ministers declared that the wreck was a part of God's plan, a punishment for the wickedness of the world !  


From:  "Wagons to wings : a history of Piper City"  by Peg Johnston 1922-1977

Little did the excursionists realize that instead of a happy trip, they were really heading for one of the greatest train disasters in history. So terrible, in fact, that the editor of the Piper City Pan Handle Advocate wrote:  

"No pen is able to describe the scene, and to do so would require human flesh for parchment, a flame of fire for a pen, and human blood for ink."

The departure was delayed slightly by late- coming passengers. From the first, things did not go exactly as they should. After all were aboard, the two locomotives slowly pulled the train out of the station amid great bursts of waving and shouting between the people on the train and the people on the station platform. 

The train crossed the bridge over the Illinois River and proceeded eastward across Illinois. After another hour's delay to repair a drawbar mishap, the train continued on its way, making a few stops to pick up additional passengers. Several got on at Fairbury. It reached Chatsworth after 11:00 P.M., about an hour and a half behind schedule. After leaving Chatsworth the engineer on the first engine opened the throttle and at last it looked like they could make up for lost time as they sped toward slumbering Piper City. 


Approaching a small bridge about two and a half miles west of Piper City, the engineer caught sight of a small blaze in the distance. The fireman noticed it, too, and passed it off with a remark about section hands being more careful in burning off the weeds along the track. But the words were hardly spoken before both men realized with shock that the bridge itself was on fire and that they were headed toward it at high speed. The engineer gave a desperate pull on the whistle rope signaling "down brakes."  

It was too late to stop and the first engine crossed over the bridge and ran on east up the track for some distance. The second engine leaped the chasm. The tender of the first engine became derailed and broke loose from both engines. The tender of the second engine was stripped of its trucks and landed 100 feet east of the bridge, where it was thrown into the ditch north of the tracks. The engine was dumped into the ditch on the south of the track opposite. 

As soon as the second engine crossed the culvert the cars followed, and leaving their trucks in its ditch, were piled and mashed together like kindling wood. The scenes of horror and confusion that followed were frightful. There were about 700 people on the train, and of these fully one half were in the coaches that now lay in a huge mass. Seven cars filled with dead and dying people were jammed into a space of two car lengths.

The car of General Superintendent Armstrong was thrown across the track and the trucks knocked from under it. The occupants had a miraculous escape. Mr. Armstrong was thrown out of the car and escaped with a slight scratch.  

The engineer of the leading engine was unhurt, but the second engineer was instantly killed with his head crushed to a pulp. His fireman jumped from the engine and was uninjured.

The accident was thought to have occurred at 11:49 P.M., since that was the time when the dead engineer's watch had stopped. Almost immediately two trainmen ran the first engine, without a tender, into Piper City for assistance. On arrival the fire alarm was given, which at that time was done by striking the steel rim of a locomotive wheel with a sledge hammer.

Soon the town was bustling with activities and the tracks were covered with people going to the scene of the disaster. The news was telegraphed to other towns and soon help was on its way from Chatsworth.

The ladies of both places prepared places for the wounded and in short orde;r both Chatsworth and Piper City looked like hospitals. Doctors were rushed to the scene on hand cars and were among the first to arrive.


The fire received the first attention of the early arrivals, for if any of the cars had caught fire the horrors of a holocaust would have been added to the already frightful disaster.

The events of that tragic night had one more ironic twist to make before the coming of the dawn. The day had been a hot and searing one, and the sun had shone down mercilessly on a parched prairie. The Peoria Daily Transcript had carried a front page story that very day on the great drougth, calling it a disaster for the farmer. The much longed for rain finally came at about 2:30 o'clock the morning of August 11. It may have been a blessing to the farmers, but to the victims of the train disaster and those working at their rescue it was the final touch of horror.

The darkness was faintly illumined by lanterns as the night was pierced with the screams of the dying and injured. The pouring rain and lightning and the roar of thunder added up to a scene that couldn't be forgotten by anyone who witnessed it.

After the wounded had been handed out of the cars and were being cared for as well as posible, the work of removing the dead began. Strong men began to take everything apart in the three telescoped cars. As they progressed they came across such scenes as these described in the Piper City Pan Handle Advocate:

"Here someone would pick up a valise and uncover an arm or leg without a body, and over there someone would pick up a piece of linen to hand to the nurses and when lifted up discover a child mashed to a jelly.
Such sights were common and made the bravest men shudder. Ghastly bodies of both men and women hung in grotesque fashion from the windows. In the midst of all of this horrible mixture of legs, heads, arms and mutilated bodies were to be seen frail pieces of glass and wood as good and unmarred as before the wreck. A small clock found in one car was keeping time as well as if just wound.

"The maniacal scene became more agonizing as husband sought wife, wife, husband, father or mother, children, or children wildly clamoring for parents, while brothers, sisters, relatives and friends kept up the same frantic search, with their lost loved ones sometimes so mutilated as to be unrecognizable. The piercing shrieks of terror-stricken people suddenly bereft of those most dear to them, and under such awful
circumstances, mingled with the heart-rending groans of the wounded and dying, etched the scene on the minds of those who were there."

Piper City's two physicians were the first on the scene and worked at their mission of mercy until completely exhausted the next day. The Opera House, the hotel and numerous private dwellings were turned into emergency quarters for the injured. Food and medicines were procured as soon as possible and all that could be done was done to alleviate the suffering. Eighty-one lost their lives that night and many more were maimed for life.

Piper City people acted with unstinting service and performed some of the most trying duties that can be required of a human being during the aftermath of the "great train wreck." 


The "Scoop" article from the Pantagraph
Said to be the article that even scooped the New York Times
A larger version can be seen by clicking on "Full screen" after reaching here. 


Article on the Historical Marker placed near site in 1954 from the Illinois State Historical Society newspaper from 1954


The site of the tragic Chatsworth train wreck of 1887 was commemorated with the unveiling of a marker on Sept.11.  C. Buford of Urbana, chairman of the program committee, delivered the principal address and Mrs. Lillian Smith of Terre Haute, Indiana, a survivor of the wreck, unveiled the plaque.  W.A. Kibler, Chatsworth school superintendent, presided at the meeting and brief remarks were made by J. Ward Barnes, of Eldorado, president of the Illinois State Historical Societ, Scerial Thompson of Harrisburg, chairman of the Society's marker committee, and State Historian Harry E. Pratt.  Two songs, "The Bridge Was Burned at Chatsworth" and "American the Beautiful" were sung by the Chatsworth High School chorus, under direction of Max Ferrari. At the conclusion of the ceremony taps were sounded by Mitchell Ritchey of Paris, bugler at Chanute Air Force Base, Rantoul. the wording on the marker, which is on Highway 24 about two and one- half miles east of Chatsworth, reads:  

The Chatsworth Wreck Midnight, August 10, 1887. One half mile north on the Todedo, Peoria & Western Railroad occurred one of the worst wrecks in American rail history. An excursion train- two engines and approximately twenty wooden coaches- from Peoria to Niagara Falls, struck a burning culvert. Of the 500 passengers about 85 perished and scores were injured. Erected by the Illinois State Historical Society, 1954.  


The Chatsworth Wreck Remembered-Pekin Times

posted Aug 4, 2012 2:45 PM by Mary Runyon-Hanshew   [ updated Aug 4, 2012 2:50 PM ]

PEKIN, Ill. —

The Great Chatsworth Train Wreck of 1887 happened in Livingston County, not Tazewell County, so at first glance one might not think it was relevant to Tazewell County history. Nevertheless, the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room has a file on the Great Chatsworth Train Wreck. 

A look into that file will quickly reveal the local connection. The main item in the file is a photograph of the disaster that had been reprinted in 1927. The photo caption says, “Although it happened in 1887, all of 40 years ago, one need only say ‘Chatsworth wreck’ in this part of the country and everyone knows what is meant. This picture of the famous wreck belongs to Chris Ziebold, Sr., 1213 Henrietta street, Pekin.” 

Notably, this photo was the basis for one of the engravings that illustrated the Harper’s Weekly account of the wreck in the issue dated Aug. 20, 1887. 

However, besides the local connection of the photograph, the disaster itself, in which at least 80 people died and probably hundreds were injured, touched the lives of many people throughout central Illinois. The train’s passengers no doubt included residents of Tazewell County. 

The wreck, which happened shortly before midnight on Aug. 10, 1887, has been ranked as either the second or third deadliest train disaster of the 19th century. The number of dead has been placed at between 81 and 85 (reports at the time estimated more than 100 dead) and the number of injured anywhere from 169 to 372. 

On the evening of Aug. 10, a Toledo, Peoria & Western train pulled out of Peoria, heading east through Eureka and Chenoa on the way to Niagara Falls. The train included two steam engines, six fully loaded passenger cars, six sleeper cars and three cars for luggage (and perhaps more cars). Aboard the train were as many as 700 people who had been attracted by a special offer to visit the Falls. 

At a point about three miles east of Chatsworth, the train began to accelerate down a slope and reached a speed of about 40 mph. At this point the train began to cross a wooden trestle bridge over a creek. The first engine made it over the bridge, which then collapsed behind it, causing the second engine to slam into the hill side. Most of the cars behind the engine telescoped into the second engine and each other.

One of the survivors, J.M. Tennery, was on the first sleeper, whose passengers escaped with only a fright or minor bruises. He said, “I got out in safety, and the scene presented to the eye and ear was one I wish I could forever efface from my memory.” 

This photograph of the Great Chatsworth Train Wreck of 1887 was owned by the late Chris Ziebold of Pekin, and was used as the basis for an engraving that illustrated the Harper’s Weekly report on the wreck. 


From the Chatsworth Plaindealer
FEBRUARY 19, 1942

The death in Chhicago, February 10 of F.W. Snedaker, 64, brought back memories of the railroad wreck 54 years ago east of Chatsworth. 
Mr. Snedaker, when a lad of but ten years of age, suffered severe injuries in the Chatsworth wreck on August 10, 1887. His mother, also a passenger on the ill-fated T.P. & W. Niagara Falls excursion train, was killed in the wreck which was caused by the burning of a small bridge.
Pinned in the wreckage of the splintered wooden coaches, piled along the railroad right-of-way following the crash, which cost the lives of scores of passengers, the youth refused to allow rescuers to give him aid until the screams of women and children could not be heard. When he thought that all had been rescued, he allowed L.J. Haberkorn, one of the rescue party who still resides in Chatsworth, to remove him from the wreckage. One of his legs was so badly mangled that amputation was necessary. One of this arms was broken, his face was torn and lacerated and he all but lost the sight of one eye. Mr. Haberkorn, in after years when the two met, addressed him as "his boy hero". 
For many years and until his death, Mr. Snedaker served a tool grinding concern at 1500 W. Madison street, Chicago, as manager. He was successful in his vocation and had the confidence and good will of a large number of employees. Surviving Mr. Snedaker, besides his wife and the brother, Rev. G. Snedaker, is a sister, Mrs. Myrtle Shipplett, of Abington, Ill.

From The Virginia Chronicle Aug.13, 1887

Superintendent Armstrong's Testimony. 
(Chicago, August 12.—A special to the Times from Forest, ILL., says: The coroner's inquest on the bodies of those killed in the disaster Wednesday night, which began last evening, was held on the top floor of the public school house. There were present only the coroner, the jury, President Leonard, of the Toledo, Peoria and Western railroad, Superintendent Armstrong, of the same road, Master-of-Bridges Markey, Justice-of the-Peace Estes, and several reporters of Chicago and Peoria papers. 
SUPERINTENDENT ARMSTRONG'S TESTIMONY. The first witness called was Superintendent Armstrong. He testified that he was on the fated train, which consisted of six sleeping cars, two chair-cars, five passenger coaches, one special car, and one baggage car, and was drawn by engine No. 13, Engineer McCiintock and Fireman Applegreen, and engine No. 21, Engineer Ed. Sutherland. Engine No. 13 was next to the baggage-car. The name of the fireman of engine No. 21 witness did not recollect. His car was next to the baggage car. The train left Chatsworth about 11:45 Wednesday night. THROWN FROM THE WINDOW. After leaving he went into his own car and sat there for three or four minutes, when he felt a fearful shock to the train. The next instant the car passed over the burning bridge. He was thrown out of one of the windows Into a hedge fence. He got up and asked one of the firemen where the first engine was, and was told that Engineer Sutherland had gone to Gilman for help. The engineer came in about three-quarters of an hour with doctors. The wounded were taken out of the wreck where possible, and sent to Chatsworth and Piper City, while all of the dead were sent to Chatsworth. The bridge was only partially demolished when witness first saw it, the stringers at both ends having gone down. Dirt and brush were thrown on the flames. The engine set fire to nothing and only one car a Pullman sleeper were slightly burned. The witness met the section foreman near the wreck after the accident, and the latter said he went over the section at 5:30 Wednesday and there was no fire there then. Witness had warned him to have the section-hands go over the section after quitting work, knowing that the excursion train was wing over the road that night. No train went over the bridge after 5:30 Wednesday. 
SIX HUNDRED ON THE TRAIN. Witness counted the tickets before reaching Chatsworth, and found there were a few over 600  persons on the train. He said he believed that there were only three or four dead persons in Piper City. Witness did not think it possible anybody could have been to fiendish as to burn the bridge. The train was running, he judged, about thirty five miles an hour at the time of the accident. Engineer Sutherland told him he saw a very small blaze before reaching the bridge, but thought it was from a few leaves burning outside the track. The engineer also told him that he did not see the fire until he got directly over the bridge, and then he called for brakes, but it was too late to avoid the accident. Witness remained at the wreck until 7 o'clock in the morning, and saw to the handling of the bodies. He saw one or two persons examining the pockets of the dead. He was informed by those making the search that they were seeking for their relatives. If he had had any suspicion that the bodies were being robbed by these persons they would have been arrested. He saw no one robbing the dead or cutting off the fingers of the dead to secure rings. There was plenty of help to get the bodies out of the wreck, valuable assistance being tendered by the Chatsworth fire company. In the cornfield near the wreck he heard a man calling, " Help! help!" Witness went toward the place and found a man with his left leg broken above the ankle. The man asked him to turn his toes down. Witness did so, and told a farmer's boy who came along with a bucket of water to stay near the man while witness went to the assistance of others. In a few minutes after leaving him witness heard a shot and, turning back, found that the man had shot himself in the forehead, producing instant death. The boy bad meanwhile gone away a short distance to give water to another wounded person. Witness remembered having noticed the deceased trying to get something out of his pocket while witness was turning his toes inward.

2017 August 10-130th Anniversary of the Chatsworth Wreck
From the Kankakee Daily Journal
August 6, 2017
"The fire on the trestle was deliberately set, but not for vengeance. I see two men. One of them was young, perhaps 22. And the other is older, not a hobo. I had a definite impression, a smell of kerosene …" Those words were spoken softly by a slim blonde woman seated on a wooden folding chair set between the rails of the Toledo, Peoria, and Western Railroad track running through a field of corn about 40 miles southwest of Kankakee. The woman was Irene Hughes, a psychic or "sensitive" (person capable of extrasensory perception) who had come to this isolated spot near the Livingston County town of Chatsworth on the night of Aug. 10, 1966. It was the 79th anniversary of one of the nation's worst rail disasters, the Great Chatsworth Train Wreck of 1887. Mrs. Hughes' goal was to attempt communication with the victims of the wreck, which claimed more than 80 lives ("She's gonna talk to the ghosts," commented one of the several hundred spectators who had gathered around her). While the psychic apparently failed to communicate with any of the long-dead train passengers, she did speak for about 30 minutes of what she was "seeing" and feeling at the site of the wreck. Her vision of the fire being deliberately set was correct: an inquest following the 1887 disaster established that TP&W crews had been carrying out controlled burns along the tracks. This was a common practice to prevent wildfires caused by sparks from the woodburning steam locomotives of that time. This particular fire would have terrible consequences. It ignited debris beneath the eastern end of a small wooden trestle that carried the TP&W tracks across a 10-foot-deep creek bed. The fire smoldered for hours, seriously weakening the trestle. Shortly before midnight on Aug. 10, 1887, a train consisting of 15 wooden cars, pulled by two locomotives, approached from the west. It had originated in Peoria with a final destination of Niagara Falls, N.Y. Many of the estimated 700 passengers aboard were honeymooning couples taking advantage of a special Niagara Falls excursion train fare. A few minutes after pulling out of the Chatsworth depot, the train reached a speed of 40 mph as it approached the damaged trestle. The first locomotive crossed safely, but the structure collapsed under the second engine. Six wooden cars filled with passengers followed the engine into the creek bed. A seventh car, the sleeper car Tunis, came to a halt teetering on the west bank of the creek. The toll of dead and injured was horrifying: between 200 and 350 passengers were injured, and at least 81 people died (some sources report 85 dead). The Chatsworth wreck remains the fifth-worst number of casualties in U.S. railroad history. One of the dead, Mrs. Olive Croswell, was a Kankakee woman. She was aboard the train with her husband, Arch, and their infant, traveling home from a visit to Peoria. They planned to transfer to a northbound Illinois Central train at Gilman, three stops farther to the east. When the train crashed, Arch Croswell was pinned in the wreckage, but was extricated by other survivors. He lost consciousness for a time, then revived and began searching for his wife and child. He found the infant being cared for by a woman who had been in the same train car. She told him the baby had been thrown through the air by the crash impact, and had landed in her lap. After a short time, Croswell discovered his young wife's body among the dead that had been laid out in the field next to the wreckage. Witnesses told him she seemed uninjured when removed from the wrecked car, but died about 15 minutes later. Two weeks after the wreck, a coroner's jury concluded the disaster was caused by the "gross negligence" of Timothy Coughlin, a TP&W employee whose crew set the fire that damaged and weakened the trestle. Coughlin faced criminal charges, but was released for lack of evidence. In 1954, the state of Illinois erected a historical marker on Illinois Route 24, midway between Chatsworth and Piper City, to mark the site of the 1887 disaster. 
Jack Klasey came to Kankakee County as a young Journal reporter in 1963, and quickly became hooked on local history. In 1968, he co-authored “Of the People: A Popular History of Kankakee County.” Now retired from a career in the publishing industry, he remains active in the history field as a volunteer and board member at the Kankakee County Museum. He can be contacted

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