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Richard C. Schmal

Richard C. Schmal is considered the official historian of the Town Of Lowell. He writes a weekly column for the local paper, The Lowell Tribune, dealing with the history and bygone days. In 1952, Richard lived on the north side of Commercial Avenue within 200 feet of the crossing. In gathering information on the train wreck, Richard was one of the first people I contacted. He was gracious enough to write down his recollections of that morning, May 22, 1952. Here is his account. As it turns out, the month of May has not been a good to Lowell Indiana, where the Monon railroad was concerned. Check out the 1914 Passenger Train Wreck page.

"It was nearing midnight, or maybe after, when Georgene and I heard a terrible and unusual noise that seemed to have a connection with the train coming into town from the north. We were in the upstairs bedroom of our house which was 4 doors west of the tracks, on the north side of Commercial Avenue. Expecting the worst, I watched in awe at the terrible spectacle at the crossing. The loud crashes, boxcars, gondolas and tank cars flying into the air like toys, the fireworks caused by the broken cables as they twirled and twisted in the air over the terrible mess.

Fire broke out over most of the pile of wreckage. Alcohol and other flammable liquids burned high into the air. Some of the alcohol flowing east on the street, burning like a wall of fire in front of the stores on Commercial Avenue. Some of the fluid ran into the storm drains, resulting in explosions and flowing into nearby Cedar Creek. With the flames upon the water down stream, it looked like the whole downtown was burning.

Fire departments from many towns answered the call, including that of Gary. They were the only department close which had foam available to combat the burning alcohol.

After those few minutes, or seconds, of watching from my bedroom window, I hurried down to the scene to see if I could be of any help. One automobile had been sitting at the crossing or come from the west. He and I were the only ones there for a short time. Another vehicle with a lady driving approached from the west, saw there was danger and quickly put her car in reverse and speed backwards, very fast.

My first thought, on seeing that the old depot had been demolished by the crash, was to see about the men in the engines. I thought perhaps the big diesels were buried under the mess near the Legion grounds. Looking south, down the tracks, I saw the lights of the engines which had broken off from the cars. Then, I saw two figures coming north with a lantern. It was the engine crew. Because I happened to be carrying a railroad lantern and wearing my work hat, they thought I was from the caboose. They asked, "How is everything back there?" Flames were high by then and it was hard to go north along the burning wreckage with rail cars piled five high. I took them through the nearby lumberyard to the caboose, which had come to a stop just south of the Main Street crossing. We found the caboose dark and empty. The crew had gone to call for assistance and were found later unharmed.

The fire departments worked through the morning to put out the flames and watch for any possible explosions. They were served hot coffee and sandwiches by many townspeople, who quickly organized a small kitchen even in the morning drizzle.

Crowds soon gathered on both sides of the tracks. When the flames were gone, many townspeople were seen carrying canned hams and other meat products, including Spam. Some were seen laboring under the weight of a "half a cattle", meat that could have been tainted with alcohol. Others were seen rolling 100 nail kegs down the alley to their cars.

Newsmen and photographers descended upon Lowell and set up their phoning headquarters in a nearby filling station as well as at several homes around the area.

Returning from work, in Griffith, driving down Route 41 the following day, I was amazed to see all the traffic on the highway. They followed me into Lowell to see the big wreck, which happened during Lowell's Centennial year of 1952.

The site of the wreck remained a terrible mess for weeks after the wreck. After the cars were removed, sand and lime were brought in and applied to try and cover the stench made from all the rotting meat and fluids spilled from the tank cars. The smell, or stench, lingered on.

The citizens of Lowell were thankful that there was no greater damage, or that no one was injured that wet morning in 1952. Huge scars still remain on the ties where the freight car had dragged a set of wheels."

The following was taken from the Lowell, Three Creeks Bicentennial Booklet.

"Mr. (Harold) Love, (now deceased) also recalls May 22, 1952, when the Loves were awakened by the derailment of thirty cars on the Monon tracks at Commercial Avenue. The town's business section was threatened when burning alcohol flowed down the streets and into the gutters. A number of manhole covers were blown into the air when the liquid exploded. Firemen from eight surrounding communities fought the flames which at times leaped to a height of 40 feet. Harold, who lived in the first house west of the Mobile station, was very busy with a garden hose on top of the station keeping the flames under control. Many area residents left the locality fearing the whole town would burn."


The Schmal Photo Collection

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