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Tracking a tragedy

This rendering shows the proposed memorial for those who died in the tragic train crash in Naperville in 1946. | Submitted
This rendering shows the a closeup of the figures in the proposed memorial for those who died in the tragic train crash in Naperville in 1946. | Submitted
Two trains lay in wreckage when a westbound Exposition Flyer plowed into a stalled Advance Flyer in Naperville, Illinois, April 26, 1946. | Sun-Times Media File
Smashed and derailed cars lie along the right of way of the Burlington Railroad in Naperville on April 25, 1946.  At least 44 passengers were killed after the westbound Exposition Flyer train crashed into the rear end of the stopped Advance Flyer. | Sun-Times Media File
Smashed and derailed cars lie along the right of way of the Burlington Railroad at Naperville onApril 25, 1946.  At least 44 passengers were killed after the westbound Exposition Flyer train crashed into the rear end of the Advance Flyer. | Subn-times Media File
Smashed and derailed cars lie along the right of way of the Burlington Railroad at Naperville on April 25, 1946.  At least 44 passengers were killed after the westbound Exposition Flyer train crashed into the rear end of the Advance Flyer.| Sun-Times Media File
Two trains lay in wreckage when a westbound Exposition Flyer engineered by Bill Blaine, plowed into a stalled Advance Flyer in Naperville on April 26, 1946.
The wreckage of two trains collided on April 25, 1946, in Naperville, on the tracks located just outside Kroehler Manufacturing Co. The accident caused 45 fatalities and about 100 injured. | Courtesy of the Naperville Heritage Society
Two trains lay in wreckage when a westbound Exposition Flyer engineered by Bill Blaine, plowed into a stalled Advance Flyer in Naperville, Illinois, April 26, 1946. | Sun-Times Media File
Firemen stand on train car roof as rescue workers search for dead and injured in wreck near Napervilleon April 25, 1946. The accident happened when a locomotive of the Burlington Railroad's Exposition Flyer, left, plowed into rear end of the Advance Flyer, at right. Many injuries were reported in addition to at least 44 passengers that reportedly died. | AP files

A new piece of public art now making its way from the drawing board to three dimensions will shed new light on one of the darkest days in Naperville’s history.

The horrific collision of two trains near Loomis Street and Fourth Avenue on April 26, 1946, tossed the town into upheaval for months, some of the old-timers recall. The rear-end crash injured more than 100 people and claimed 45 lives, mostly passengers bound for home in nearby states.

But it was what happened afterward that artist Paul Kuhn will illuminate in the three figures planned to anchor his sculpture, currently titled Tragedy to Triumph. The next major installment of the Century Walk collection, Kuhn’s creation is scheduled for completion in time for a dedication coinciding with the tragedy’s 68th anniversary.

“We wanted to focus on what happened after the accident, more than the accident itself and what caused it,” said Brand Bobosky, Century Walk president. “It’s quite a compelling story.”

At 34, Kuhn is much too young to know the story as an eyewitness. But as a fifth-generation Naperville resident, he has plenty of family and acquaintances who know the story. As he tapped their knowledge, he learned that his great uncle Bob Riedy might have been among those lost if he had come home from his military hitch just a few days earlier, and that his great-great Aunt Rosa saw it happen.

“She was one of the first eyewitnesses. She drove over to St. Peter and Paul Church, and she’s the one who got the priest down there,” Kuhn said. “It was really interesting talking to all the family members that are still alive and remember it, who were right down the street from the accident. It helped me put some of myself into the project.”

Bob Riedy was one of the lucky ones; roughly one-third of the casualties involved soldiers and sailors who had been eagerly awaiting their reunion with friends and family.

“That’s part of the tragedy,” Bobosky said. “A number of people survived the war and were going home, but didn’t survive the accident.”

Local relief

Many people who lived and worked in the city came rushing to the site after the early-afternoon calm was shattered when the Exposition Flyer plowed into the rear of the Advance Flyer. Bound for Iowa and Nebraska, the Advance Flyer had made an unscheduled stop on the tracks for a check of its undercarriage when the second passenger train rounded the bend to the east, moving in excess of 80 mph.

“That’s what it’s all about, the way the town pulled together,” said Paul Hinterlong.

A lifelong Naperville resident, City Councilman and chairman of the committee planning the memorial monument, Hinterlong likened the response to the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Among those closest to the crash were workers in the massive Kroehler Furniture factory, now the Fifth Avenue Station building. A company newsletter published two weeks after the accident said this: “At the moment of the impact, 800 employees of Kroehler Mfg. Co. dropped the tools with which they make the world’s best furniture and picked up other tools like torches, bolt cutters, hack saws, ladders, 2-by-6s and 2-by-12s to extricate mangled bodies from the tangled wreckage.”

The response, which also involved students, faculty and equipment shared by North Central College, is the primary focus of the project.

“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 said.

Train of thought

Ron Keller, who directs the Naperville Municipal Band, has vivid memories from the infamous afternoon and the part his father played in the relief effort.

“I was in first grade at Ellsworth School, Miss McDermand’s class,” Keller said this week. “I guess it was about 1:30, quarter to two. I looked up, and my dad was standing in the doorway to the school. I had never seen my dad in school.”

Properly excused from class, Keller headed home in the car with his father. His usual walk to school took him over School Street and underneath the train tracks, and his dad didn’t want the little boy to see the carnage. But as the car topped the Columbia Street bridge, they spotted the commotion and mess.

“I said, ‘What happened?’ And he said, ‘One train ran into another,’” Keller said.

The boy’s mind immediately went to his Lionel train set, and he wondered aloud why one car couldn’t just push the other along the tracks when the two made contact, as his toy train did.

“My dad just smiled and said, ‘Well, not when they’re going 70 miles an hour,’” he said.

The elder Keller was an employee at Kroehler, and his next several days were spent in the midst of the aftermath’s horrors.

“He didn’t eat,” the son said.

Joan Riedy Kuhn, the sculptor’s grandmother, recalls the afternoon as well. She was 20 and had a job in Chicago with Commonwealth Edison, to which she commuted via train with her sister from their home, just three blocks from the crash site.

“We went to work as usual, and my mother called to tell us that there had been train crash, so she would meet us in Downers Grove,” Joan Kuhn said. “It was very sad, just knowing that many people died.”

Human crutch

Also nearby at the time was Calista Wehrli, who passed away three years ago at 85. She was visiting her sister, wearing part of her Marine Corps uniform. A 2006 Associated Press story in The Sun quoted Wehrli saying she spent eight hours as part of the frantic rescue effort.

“I was taking people out of the cars alive, taking people out injured, taking out dead people,” she said in the report.

Chuck Spinner was still six months short of being born when the crash shook the town. He’s heard many stories about the day, some of which are woven into his 2012 book, “The Tragedy at the Loomis Street Crossing.” One of those stories, related by a man whose father was badly injured in the accident, had Calista Wehrli in it.

During the trip, the man had been doting over a fellow traveler and her two tiny children.

“He asked Calista, ‘Well, how was the woman with the two babies?’ And she had to tell him that they had all perished, and he broke down and cried,” Spinner said.

Kuhn, who divides his time between his art and his job as a railroad subcontractor, works in a studio set a few yards away from the railroad tracks that abut his grandparents’ backyard. It is in his work space where he will transform salvaged rail scrap and other materials into the sculpted trio: two men flanking an injured and wary young woman, supporting her away from the site of mangled steel and spilled blood.

“The first aid name for two people helping another in this manner is called the human crutch,” Kuhn wrote in his winning proposal for the commission.

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