Don’t be fooled by the downcast eyes. The trio is keeping their gaze fixed on the tracks.
A new, sturdy sculpture has been set into place just south of the railroad tracks that carry commuters from Naperville to Chicago and back each day. The three figures don’t represent specific people, but they serve as a humanitarian reminder of the good that can come of inexplicable tragedy, and the precious nature of a compassionate human spirit.
The piece, titled Tragedy to Triumph, was set into place at the east end of the Metra station platform on April 21 and dedicated Saturday afternoon. The ceremony drew about 300 people, many coming from well beyond the city limits, including relatives of the 45 people killed in the crash where Loomis Street crosses the train tracks on April 25, 1946. The massive loss can’t be minimized or erased, despite decades of rail safety improvements that all but eliminate the chance such a collision could recur.
The sculpture is intended to honor what happened that day.
It was the day Mary Langen finally headed home toward Quincy, after staying behind a few days in Chicago after her family had gone back. The 49-year-old was in the rear car of the Advance Flyer, which was stopped on the tracks for unscheduled maintenance when the Exposition Flyer rounded the bend to the east and, despite the engineer’s braking, was moving an estimated 60 miles per hour as it plowed into the other train. Langen’s daughter, Mary Lou Morrell, now in her 70s and unable to attend Saturday’s dedication, related in a letter how all of her classmates came to the funeral.
“I just remember seeing them, and thinking how nice it was for them to come,” she wrote.
Henry and Rosanna Ross are too young to have experienced the tragedy that took Henry’s uncle, Bernard Voss, who was a sailor on his way home after serving in World War II. They’ve heard about it from another family member. About 20 of Bernard’s relatives came from Quincy and Bloomington to Saturday’s unveiling.
“What we understand was he was coming home from the war to propose to his girlfriend,” said Henry.
The railroad memorial committee members were told that three of the 11 young war veterans who died in the crash were poised to announce their engagements. In all, 28 males and 17 females, including small children, perished in the collision.
Memories live on
No one from Naperville was among the lost, but many in the town of 5,000 occupants came rushing to help after the crash shattered the early afternoon peace. Local residents still recall how the collision affected family members.
Anna and Arthur Miller, who lived in the stone house they built south of the tracks at Loomis Street, were Carolyn Lauing Finzer’s grandparents. Finzer said her grandmother would step onto her front porch every day to wave a kitchen towel at passing trains. She watched in horror that day as the two trains crumpled into a mountain of mangled steel.
“After that accident, we do believe that Grandma had what today we would call post-traumatic stress,” Finzer said. “Her mind was never, ever right after what she witnessed.”
Ron Keller, who directs the Naperville Municipal Band, related how his father left his job at the Kroehler Furniture Factory to spend several days helping the rescue.
“It upset him so much that he didn’t eat for about a week,” Keller said. “As a little kid I remember sitting at the supper table when Dad would come back home. He would look pale and didn’t talk about it. My mom said just to not ask him about it. I didn’t say much.”
Mayor A. George Pradel recalls the day being very warm. He heard the sirens and watched as responders headed to the site, following them into town on foot.
“They just took charge … They helped the injured and they comforted the people that were waiting to make sure that their relatives were OK,” Pradel said.
That’s what appears most memorable from the incident, separate from the horror and loss. Author Chuck Spinner, who grew up a block from the crash site and spent five years on interviews and research when he wrote “The Tragedy at the Loomis Street Crossing,” said any account of such events must include “the great as well as the gruesome.”
There is plenty of great in the story, said Spinner, who recalls how his father John and his uncle Bill would stop what they were doing if they heard the fire bell ring, to go direct traffic at Jefferson Avenue and Main Street and enable the volunteer firefighting force to make its way out of the city’s sole firehouse, now home to Lou Malnati’s.
Train travel became less dangerous in the wake of the Naperville disaster. Clayton Johanson, terminal manager for the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad, said the accident led to development of cab signal systems that today quickly convey information about track conditions ahead to the engineer.
The accident also slowed all passenger trains down to less than 80 miles per hour, ending a period in the 1930s and ‘40s when the vehicles had steadily gained velocity.
“The continuing escalations in train speeds essentially ended after 1946 when two Burlington trains crashed near Naperville, Illinois, bringing regulation by the Interstate Commerce Commission,” authors John Gruber and Brian Solomon wrote in “The Milwaukee Road’s Hiawathas” (2006, Voyageur Press). “High speeds were still possible with sophisticated signal equipment, but there were no more spectacular breakthroughs similar to those in the 1930s.”
The 2,400-pound memorial, fashioned by Naperville artist Paul Kuhn from some 5,000 steel railroad spikes and more than ten miles of welding wire, was a long time coming. Speculation abounds over why that was so.
Keller said 95 percent of Naperville’s residents are unaware of the tragedy. He approached administrators in Naperville District 203 and Indian Prairie District 204, and there was talk of incorporating the story into junior high and middle school curriculums.
“School kids I talked to and teachers that I talked to, none of them knew anything about it,” Keller said.
Paul Hinterlong, a City Council member and chairman of the railroad memorial committee, said his conversations with Spinner shortly after the book was published helped get the process moving late last summer. Hinterlong grew up in Naperville, but never heard anyone talk about the accident.
“Think about it — that was huge back then, for a town that might have had four police officers and an all-volunteer fire department,” Hinterlong told The Sun as work on the project was getting underway late last year.
Spinner has his own ideas about why it took 68 years to install an appropriate monument.
“Truth be told, the reason that this memorial is so late in being estblished is probably because Naperville always thought that what they did that day was nothing really special. It’s what a good neighbor does,” he said. “In retrospect, their rescue efforts were spectacular, but at the time those efforts seemed as commonplace, as natural as a farmer helping his neighbor bringing in his crops.”
As part of last year’s book tour, Spinner traveled what would have been the Advance Flyer’s route, and met victims’ families.
“They all said at the time, ‘If a memorial can be created and dedicated, we want to come,’” he said. “We want to take the train up there and be there for it.’”