Lowell Logo

From the Lowell Tribune , May 29, 1952

28 Freight Cars Derailed At Commercial Avenue Crossing; Monon Depot is Demolished

Broken Wheel Causes Accident This Morning; Seven Fire Departments Fight Roaring Blaze from Exploding Alcohol Tank Cars

One of the worst wrecks in the history of the Monon railroad occurred at about 1:20 this morning when a broken wheel on a box car caused derailment of 28 cars on the Commercial avenue crossing in Lowell, piling them up in grotesque fashion along the right-of-way.

Flames, shooting 75 feet in the air from exploding alcohol tank cars, and from ignited alcohol running east on the street to the bridge, brilliantly lighted the scene.

The depot, which was to have been remodeled for the coming centennial, was completely demolished when struck by the telescoping cars and the remains burned to ashes from the roaring alcohol blaze. The entire scene from just north of the crossing to a point south of the Legion building is one of devastation, with approximately 500 feet of track torn up, broken power and telephone lines and mangled wreckage of burned up freight cars.

No estimate of the total damage had been made as yet this morning, but the figure will run into thousands of dollars.

Credit for confining the fire to five of the six alcohol tank cars and another filled with molasses goes to fire departments from Lowell, St. John, Cedar Lake, Gary, Shelby, Schneider and Lake Dalecarlia, who fought the raging flames from shortly after the crash until 6 o'clock this morning. One car of alcohol failed to catch fire even though it was lying near the main blaze. When the two Lowell trucks arrived on the scene about 1:25, the entire street from the tracks to the bridge was ablaze with burning alcohol thrown several hundred feet by the exploding tanks. Firemen washed the alcohol down into nearby sewer traps and several smaller explosions resulted from sewer gases.

Had it not been for the combined efforts of the departments, the two service stations only a few feet west of the tracks and many other nearby buildings would also have been destroyed.

The engineer of the three diesel unit said that when the crash came he cut the engines loose, not knowing what was happening. The broken wheel on one of the cars allowed the undercarriage to drop and ties were mangled for several blocks before the derailment occurred on the crossing.

It was estimated by Monon employees that traffic would be tied up for three days before the wreckage can be cleared and new tracks laid.

If one can term such a disaster "a lucky accident," this one should be considered so. Had it happened during the day a number of people probably would have been killed. Each time the gates go down during the day, autos line up on either side of the tracks on the busy state highway in addition to the normal town activities which occur in the vicinity. As it is no one was injured.

The firemen's auxiliary served coffee to the local and neighboring fire fighters throughout the night, and at 4:00 a.m. Matt's restaurant held an open house breakfast for all the firemen. Also extending hospitality all through the night were Hardings, Inc., and Mrs. Louisa Love Jones, whose home became headquarters for Chicago newsmen and photographers who arrived at the scene about 2:00 a.m. Among them were Tom Connors of the Chicago Tribune, Charles Simmons of the Herald-American, and Paul Vincent of the Sun-Times.

The human interest in the story concerns the depot. Only last week, in answer to a request of the Lowell Garden club, Mr. Barriger, president of the Monon, promised to remodel the depot before the centennial celebration, August 29, 30, 31 and September 1.

From the Lowell Tribune , May 29, 1952

30 Freight Cars Derailed at Commercial Avenue Crossing; Monon Depot Demolished

Click on image to view full size.

Photo courtesy of Jim Baker/ Lowell Library

The scene above taken by Jim Baker, Tribune photographer and also a Lowell fireman, shows tongues of flame shooting skyward from five ignited Monon alcohol tank cars at the height of the conflagration at about 2:00 a.m. last Thursday morning.

The crash, thought to have been caused by a broken wheel, piled up 30 cars of the 69 car freight on the Commercial avenue crossing in what was said to have been the most cars involved in one train wreck in the history of the nation where no one was killed or injured.

Even before flames were entirely extinguished, two huge railroad cranes arrived on the scene at about 9 o'clock that morning and began the monumental task of clearing the tons of debris from the right-of-way so a temporary track could be laid. This was accomplished in record time and the first train rolled through Lowell at 9:00 a.m. Friday, after section crews and crane men had worked around the clock.

When the Lowell fire department arrived about five minutes after the crash and found a wall of flame almost to Cullen's garage, other departments were called from Crown Point, Schneider, St. John, Lake Dalecarlia, Shelby, Gary and Cedar Lake. Had it not been for the combined efforts of approximately 70 firemen who worked from shortly after the wreck at 1:20 a.m. to 6 o'clock, Lowell would probably have had a much worse fire than the one in 1898 which burned several business houses on the south side of Commercial Ave. The Lowell department stood watch all day and evening and several times extinguished small fires which flared up in the rubble.

Mrs. Hugh Hutton, Mrs. Lowell Bydalek and members of the firemen's auxiliary took food from their lockers and cupboards and fed the firemen during the night.

Monon crews, after nearly a week's work, now have the right-of-way nearly back to normal but the absence of a depot lends a naked appearance to the scene.

From the Lowell Tribune , May 29, 1952

Old Landmark Passes on at Age 70

The Monon depot, leveled last Thursday morning in the train pile-up on the Commercial Avenue crossing, at the age of approximately 70 years, was one of Lowell's old timers.

The station had several close calls from flying train parts and once when several cars were derailed in front of the building, signal arms were knocked down a few feet from its doors. Frank Maloy, who served as depot agent from 1903 until the 1930's, once dove out of a window (it was closed at the time) when a derailed car clipped off a few steel poles against the building. Frank said when he heard the crash, he pictured a freight car coming through the depot and promptly dove through the window on the opposite side without waiting to find out. He suffered no ill effects from his perfectly executed swan dive but he had to replace the window glass.

Joe Cassady, the present Monon agent, when told how lucky he was that the accident happened when he was off duty, remarked that it wouldn't have made any difference because every time a train went through he always made certain that he was outside the building. Having heard stories told on former agents, he always viewed passing trains from his favorite spot--behind a large tree near the driveway to the Legion building.

Stories courtesy of Lowell Library/ Three Creeks Historical Society

Return to main page