The Great Chatsworth Train Wreck – August 10-11, 1887 – Chatsworth, Illinois

Wreck of Niagara Excursion - Chatwsworth, Illinois

Just outside of Chatsworth, Illinois on U.S. 24 lies a historical marker that reads:

The Chatsworth Wreck – 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.

Summer 1887 had been extremely hot and dry throughout the Midwest. Central Illinois had been particularly bone dry, with no rain for weeks. On August 10, a control burn was ordered to stop the potential for a larger fire from passing trains. The fire was not more than likely not completely extinguished leaving it to burn a small bridge that spanned the creek. The bridge was scorched making it far too weak to support any significant weight. Unfortunately for the crew and 700 passengers heading eastbound that day aboard the Toledo, Peoria & Western on a Niagara Falls excursion, there were unaware the burnt trestle would lead to disaster.

The excursion line was very popular amongst middle-class, white travelers from the Midwest. For only $7.50, a vacationer could take a round-trip ticket from Illinois to the majestic splendor of Niagara Falls. The popularity of the trip caused the train to be especially long with 20 passenger cars, which required two locomotives.

Much of what happened next is shrouded in mystery. Some reports say that the train’s engineer saw the damaged bridge, but was unable to stop in time. Other reports cite a downward slope and high rate of speed combined with the damaged bridge causing the disaster. Either way, the first engine crossed safely over the burnt bridge with no trouble, but the second engine rolled, causing it to separate from the first engine and fly into the ditch.

Immediately the wooden passenger cars followed. Each one crashing first into the second engine then, smashing and slicing into the one before it. Eleven of the 20 passenger cars careened into the ditch. the only ones remaining on the track were the more opulent and heavier Pullman sleeper cars.

Harper’s Weekyl sketch of the accident

Either 81 or 85 passengers died in the wreck. As was word of the accident spread, hundreds of gawkers and onlookers descended upon Chatsworth to see the wreckage. Many of the visitors took souvenirs from the wreckage leading to erroneous and fictionalized accounts that the accident was staged to rob the dead. The August 12th, 1887 edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch was particularly susceptible to this rumor:

Train Robbers Cause the Chatsworth Disaster.
Sensational Developments in the Railroad Horror.
More Bodies Believed to Be in the Wreck. Inquest on the Unfortunate Victims Now in Progress.
Seventy-Six Dead on the Coroner’s Official List.
The Temporary Morgues and Hospitals at Chatsworth Full.
Caring for the injured – An Official Investigation Begun by the State Board of Railroad Commissioners – A Foul and Sickening Stench at the Wreck – Indications That the Train Was Wrecked for the Purpose of Robbery – A Gang of Thieves Lurking Around the Scene of the Disaster Before and After the Accident The Dead and “Wounded Bobbed Clearing the Wreck Responsibility of the Railroad Company Preparing the Dead for Burial – Lists of the Dead and Injured.

The cause of the accident was a lack of care and transparency on the part of the railroad officials. Had they communicated the damage to the bridge, or even had a smaller train test the strength of the burned out trestle, then the eighty-plus human lives would have been spared.

Sunday, August 14th, four days after the accident the railroad company had gathered most of the debris, possibly including bodies, into an enormous flaming ball of wood, metal and flesh destroying what was left the wreckage and any details to be learned from the accident.

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