Death in the Evening

The intersection of State and 63rd  Streets looks pretty much the same today as it did on May 25, 1950.  This view is probably the last thing that Paul Manning saw.

Manning was a 42-year-old CTA streetcar motorman.  At 6:30 on this spring evening he was piloting his southbound car down the tracks in the center of State Street.  There were no expressways yet and the ‘L’ didn’t go past 69th Street, so Manning’s car was crowded with rush hour commuters.

A heavy shower had passed through the area.  Just ahead, the Pennsylvania Railroad viaduct was flooded.  Since electric streetcars could not operate through standing water, a CTA supervisor was on duty.  He was diverting southbound cars into an emergency terminal on the east side of State.

Manning approached the intersection at full speed.  He must not have known that the viaduct was impassible.  Nor did he see the supervisor running toward him, frantically waving his arms.  The car hit the open switch.  Instead of continuing south on State, it lurched violently to the left, across the oncoming lanes of traffic.

5-29--generic streetcar.jpg

Mel Wilson was driving a tanker truck northbound on State.  The truck was loaded with 7,000 gallons of gasoline from a refinery in Whiting, Indiana.  Wilson had just cleared 63rd Street when the turning streetcar slammed into him.

There was a moment of awful silence, then the truck exploded.  Flames shot through the streetcar and rolled down State Street, igniting everything in their path.  Trees, cars, buildings—in thirty seconds the block had become a vision of hell.

At the rear of the burning streetcar, the conductor forced open the back window and about a dozen people escaped, many of them on fire.  They were the lucky ones.  The exit doors had jammed.  The rest of the passengers were roasted to death.

Fire alarms jangled in all the South Side stations.  The department rushed thirty-three pieces of equipment to the scene.  The sound of the explosion and the black smoke rising through the air attracted hundreds of spectators.  Squads of police were called out to hold back the crowds.

5-29--wrecked streetcar.jpg

Firemen worked through the night, extinguishing the stray flames and searching for survivors.  The next morning, with the odor of burning flesh still in the air, city crews went to work dynamiting the shells of seven buildings.  Over 150 residents had lost their homes.  Thirty-three people were dead, among them motorman Paul Manning and truck driver Mel Wilson.

As a result of the accident, the CTA refitted the rear exit doors on its vehicles, so they could be manually pushed open.  The policy of replacing streetcars with buses was accelerated.  By 1958 the last trolley was gone from Chicago’s streets.

The definitive account of the incident is The Green Hornet Streetcar Disaster, by Craig Allen Cleve.



4 Responses to “Death in the Evening”

  1. 1 chiguy1968 June 7, 2018 at 8:02 am

    Wow, I never heard about this before. Thanks for posting.

  2. 2 Patricia Schmit June 7, 2018 at 8:57 pm

    The Daily News or the Trib published the most gruesome photo I’ve ever seen of the results of that crash. It was perhaps at the exit door but there was no door. Rather, it was grey ash compacted into human forms – a whole group caught in various poses but probably not personally identifiable. That was 68 years ago and I don’t need to close my eyes to see it. Why on earth was it published? To this day when driving I have to make my escape immediately if an oil tanker comes near. I was a child of course but knew someone who decided not to take that particular streetcar cause it was too crowded. She had left work – 47th Street – but somehow I’ve always thought she worked at the stockyards. And, no, don’t show that photo!!!!

  3. 3 Melvin June 15, 2018 at 10:07 pm

    Patricia, I know the photo you’re talking about, and I completely agree.

  4. 4 JAMES F. O'NEIL July 8, 2018 at 4:16 pm

    I was nine. It was a hot May evening. I remember my mom saying to us–we were on the back porch, on the 2nd floor outside, living at 67nd and Marshfield–that she smelled something awful burning. Then we heard. The pictures in the newspapers were the most graphic I had ever seen, until later Hiroshima and the Nazi death camps. If I recall, that was the end of publishing photos like those.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: