Dangerous Crossing (4-4-1912)

A Chicago railroad was in the news today, and that news was grim.  Twenty people had been injured at a rail crossing on the Southwest Side.  Three of them had died.

Chicago was the rail hub of the nation.  There were hundreds of locations where the tracks crossed city streets.  With all traffic getting heavy, the city council had passed laws requiring the railroads to elevate their tracks.

The Chicago & Alton line ran through the Southwest Side.  In 1911 the city ordered the C&A to build viaducts over the cross streets.  The railroad had delayed, citing poor weather and other excuses.

Flagging a 75th Street car across the Illinois Central tracks, 1908

Flagging a 75th Street car across the Illinois Central tracks, 1908

On this particular morning, Alderman Charles Martin was in a meeting discussing ways of forcing the railroad to act.  Over on Kedzie Avenue, a northbound streetcar approached the C&A crossing near 37th Street and stopped.  The conductor got off to make sure the track was clear.  That was standard procedure.

The conductor watched a four-car C&A freight train pass through the crossing.  Then he signaled his streetcar to moved ahead.  He hadn’t noticed another freight on a parallel track.

Too late, the conductor saw the second train.  He shouted and waved at the motorman of the streetcar.  But the streetcar was already moving through the crossing.

The freight train slammed into the streetcar, toppling it over and crushing it.  Hearing the noise, people rushed to the scene.  The police arrived.  Along with the train crew, they went to work rescuing the passengers from the wreckage.  The injured were taken in carriages to nearby St. Anthony Hospital.

The three people killed were all members of a single family–a 26-year old woman, her infant daughter, and the woman’s adult sister.  The victims were later identified by the woman’s husband.  Ironically, the man was a conductor on another streetcar line.

When word of the accident reached Alderman Martin, he drew up an ordinance ordering all C&A trains to make a full stop before crossing any intersection.  The city council took up the matter the same afternoon.  It passed unanimously.

The C&A Kedzie crossing was later elevated.  So were most of Chicago’s other railroad crossings.  But on the outskirts of the city, many remain at grade.  And in the densely-populated Albany Park neighborhood, the CTA Brown Line still runs on the ground.



7 Responses to “Dangerous Crossing (4-4-1912)”

  1. 1 Evan April 4, 2014 at 9:13 am

    It’s not just the outskirts: trains to/from the north concourse of Union Station have several crossings at grade from Canal to Racine. But I’m guessing that’s because they have to cross under the UP tracks.

    I live in Galewood, where the Metra/CP tracks run at grade from Narragansett to Harlem. Since you’re from the NW side, I was hoping you might know some of the history about why they were not elevated. Does it have anything to do with the grade of the continental divide you’ve written about?

    • 2 J.R. Schmidt April 4, 2014 at 11:13 am

      I’m not entirely sure why the tracks on the edge of town weren’t elevated. My understanding is that when the Depression came the railroads pleaded insolvency, so the city didn’t force the matter. In the 1950s there was talk of having C&NW elevate the tracks on their Northwest Line between Foster and Devon, but that was never done.

      • 3 Garry April 5, 2014 at 6:30 pm

        I’ve never understood why the triple grade crossing of the Milwaukee Road at Devon, Caldwell, Central at Lehigh has never been raised up.
        It sure is fun during the rush hour when train after train rolls through Edgebrook blocking all three streets at once.

        Then there’s the Winnetka grade separation project from the 1930s. Both Wilmette & Kenilworth pleaded poverty & didn’t go along with it. There are a couple of grade crossings in Wilmette with large signs saying “No Low Slung Trucks”, yet at least twice a year, some idiot truck driver gets hung up on the hump & has to be towed off.

      • 4 J.R. Schmidt April 6, 2014 at 1:52 pm

        There was a plan to depress the (then) Milwaukee Road tracks thru this area during the early 1960s, but it wasn’t done. It seems that railroad grade crossings will remain in place, unless the expense can be written off as part of a larger project. The railroad crossing on Irving Park just east of York Road has long been a notorious bottleneck. But now that O’Hare Airport is being expanded, railroad viaducts are finally going up over Irving Park.

  2. 5 SWSIDEFAN April 7, 2014 at 9:13 am

    Thanks, John. Our old neighborhod (Ashburn) inlcudes the Wrightwood section on the east end which includes the massive rail switching yard at 76th Street between Kedzie and Western. Not one, but two lines impact the busy 83rd Place & SW Highway as well as the even busier 87th Street/Pulaski/SW Highway – all at grade. Viaducts are in place for 79th & Kedzie but this bottleneck for freights slowing to enter the yards has been a pedestrian and vehicular nightmare there for decades.

  3. 6 Ralph May 1, 2014 at 6:28 pm

    I remember going to work, driving east on Devon at Caldwell and Lehigh around 1975. I was at the intersection and the guy in front of me crossed Lehigh and went around the crossing gate was was hit by the express train going into the city. I watched the car roll over and over, side to side down the side of the tracks where it finally stop about 200 feet east of Central Ave. I made a right turn down Central and parked my car and ran over to see if the guy was alright. Another guy who saw this also did the same thing. We both watch him crawl out his car, brush himself off and said well I gotta get to work. We convinced him to sit down and rest. He was fine except for being in shock. Some minor cuts and bruises but that was all. I could have not believe what this guy did. That train was some ways down the track before it could stop. I was told that the was going around 55 mph at the time it hit the car. Even after that, I still saw cars drive around the down gates after that.

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