Today’s Pancaked Yet Truly Morbid Fact!
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. Tragedy struck 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.
Culled from: Pantagraph.Com