THE CHATSWORTH DISASTER
THE HAUNTED HISTORY OF ILLINOIS' WORST TRAIN DISASTER
During the early morning hours of August 11, 1887, a terrible train crash occurred near the small town of Chatsworth, Illinois -- and left ghostly legends in its wake.
It had been a dry, brutally hot summer that year. A severe drought held the entire state in its grasp. By August, newspapers were reporting that stream beds were dry, wells were running out of water, and that cornfields were scorched beyond recovery. It was so bad that even sporadic showers and thunderstorms became newsworthy events. According to the news reports of the time, railroad section workers were kept busy putting out fires that had been caused by sparks from passing locomotives. For some reason, supervisors on the line thought the dry weather was a good time to put the men to work burning the dry weeds that grew along the tracks – it was a poorly thought out plan that would become deadly.
During the afternoon of August 10, 1887, workers along a section of the Toledo, Peoria & Western line near Chatsworth spent most of the day burning weeds and brush. The men would later state that all of their fires had been extinguished when they left for the day, but during the night, a small bridge that was close to where the men had been working managed to catch fire. Whether it burned because of the weed clearing or as a result of sparks from a passing locomotive will never be known. Whatever the cause, by midnight, the fire had burned through the wooden trestle that was just west of the Ford-Livingston County line. Just as the clock struck the hour, an excursion train roared toward the smoldering bridge.
The excursion train was one of hundreds of such trains that operated in the nineteenth century. For a small fee, ordinary folks could get away from home for a few days and enjoy scenic and natural sites that they might not otherwise see. Some of the most popular places to visit for the excursion trains were Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, Hot Springs, Arkansas, and Niagara Falls. It was to that New York natural wonder that the train was heading when it crossed Illinois in August 1887.
The train had departed from Hancock County, Illinois. A large crowd of excited travelers, mostly from Galesburg and from neighboring Iowa, was on board the train. Fatefully, or perhaps it seemed so in hindsight, the train was being pulled by Engine No. 13. Even those who were not superstitious could agree that the engine turned out to be unlucky for those on board the train.
The train traveled eastward, picking up passengers from many of the small towns along the way. The train steamed into Peoria in the early evening hours with 15 coaches. At the Peoria station, switchmen added several more coaches and dozens of additional passengers climbed aboard. After the train crossed the Illinois River, Engine No. 21 was coupled to the front of Engine No. 13. The train now consisted of two locomotives, pulling at least 20 cars with about 800 passengers on board.
With all of the stops and the addition of more cars, the train had fallen about two hours behind schedule. It was nearly midnight by the time that it arrived in Chatsworth. After a brief stop, the train left the depot and began to pick up steam. About two miles east of town, the lead locomotive crossed a small hill and from this vantage point, the engineer spotted flames ahead on the rails. Horrified, he realized that a wooden trestle ahead of them was burning. There was no possible way, he knew, to stop the train.
The engine roared ahead, despite his immediate attempt to apply the brakes, and as No. 21 passed over the trestle, the engineer “felt the engine sink a little and felt a shock.” The locomotive rumbled across the bridge. Engine No. 21 was safely across but as No. 13 began to shudder its ways across the treacherous bridge, the trestle began to collapse. The engine tipped over on its side, as it was still moving forward at a speed of about 25 miles an hour, it skidded along the ground, churning up rock, sand, dirt, and wood.
As the heavy coaches, filled with passengers, collided with the overturned engine, they slid sideways off the tracks. The coaches plowed into the engine, ramming into one another with a metallic fury. Metal screamed with a horrific grinding noise and wood splintered and broke. Even in the darkness, many would recall a rolling cloud of soot, cinders, ash, and dust. The railroad cars slammed together with a telescoping effect, each coach slicing into the one in front of it. The flying metal whirred like the blades of a saw, producing a grisly death toll. Many of the passengers were cut into pieces, their bodies savagely sliced apart. Many more of them were crushed and died instantly.
As the wreck finally ground to a halt, 11 of the railroad cars now occupied the space that was once occupied by two. The sound of the tearing metal faded and was immediately replaced by a chorus of human screams and wails. The survivors of the disaster began to stumble about, looking for family members, friends, and anyone else who might have lived through the terror.
The engineer of locomotive No. 21 climbed down from his cab and stared in awe at the unbelievable wreckage that loomed behind him. Only the dim light of burning fires illuminated the scene, but the flames showed him more than he wanted to ever see. The scene would live on his nightmares for many years to come. Two firemen from No. 21 took over the controls of the engine and rushed east to Piper City. They blew their whistles, hoping to alert as many people as possible to the awful news about what had happened. A brakeman from the train ran off in the opposite direction, following the tracks back to Chatsworth. As he ran, he began to see flickers of lightning in the dark sky. A storm was coming.
Almost impossibly, the horror at the crash scene became worse. The wreckage of the train caught fire, trapping many of the injured survivors inside. As screams filled the night, other survivors, who had managed to make it out of the ruined cars, began to throw handfuls of dirt onto the flames. As rescuers began to arrive from Chatsworth, and from small farms nearby, they joined them and clawed at the dirt with their bare hands to keep the blaze from spreading. Meanwhile, telegrams were sent out from Piper City and Chatsworth and rescue trains began steaming toward the accident.
Then, around 3:00 a.m., the summer drought finally broke and torrents of rain began to fall from the sky. The storm, which had been only flickering lightning in the distance at the time of the wreck, reached the awful scene and unleashed its fury on the survivors, the rescuers, and the dead. The rain managed to put out the remains of the fire but it also turned the nearby fields and dirt roads into a muddy swamp, making them nearly impassable.
By sunrise, Chatsworth was swarming with both volunteers and curiosity-seekers. People came from all over the region to provide comfort and aid and to see the carnage for themselves. Over the days that followed, the gruesome task of removing and identifying the dead was carried out. The twisted metal coaches made this job nearly impossible and newspapers repeatedly used the word “pulp” to describe the condition of the human remains.
Many of Chatsworth’s buildings were turned into temporary morgues and the crowds who came to view the remains became so troublesome that armed guards had to be posted at the doors. One newspaper account noted, “Charnel houses and hospitals make up tonight what has been the peaceful village of Chatsworth.”
Fanned by sensational newspaper reports and wild rumors, terrible stories spread through the area. The rumors included reports that belongings had been stolen from the dead and that the bridge fire had been set on purpose. Responding to public anger, a section foreman was arrested and blamed for the fire, but he was later released. To this day, much about that night remains a mystery, including the cause of the fire and the number of people who died. Some accounts claim 81, others place the tally at 85. Regardless, it was one of the worst disasters in Illinois and one of the greatest losses of life for railroad crashes in American history.
Four days after the disaster, the railroad gathered most of the debris into an enormous funeral pyre. A Bloomington newspaper described the scene: “A match was touched to the mass and in a few hours heaps of ashes hid whatever secrets the wreck still contained. A smell of burning flesh from time to time filled the air.”
It should come as little surprise that the horrific disaster has inspired a few ghost stories over the years. Locals often told tales about the sounds of screams and moaning at the site of the crash and teenagers often claimed to see eerie lights that appeared near where the train had burned. Some said that they were the spectral lights of rescuers, hurrying to the grisly scene with lanterns in their hands. Many years later, when a freight train derailed in Chatsworth on the anniversary of the disaster, a local resident quipped, “I guess the ghosts are still out there.”
But the most enduring ghostly tale that was connected to the crash did not occur in Chatsworth, but rather in the LaSalle Cemetery, just outside of Chillicothe, Illinois, near Peoria. According to the accounts, one of the survivors of the crash was a man named Ira Hicks. He and his wife, Nancy, were traveling to Niagara Falls aboard the excursion train. After the wreck, Hicks searched in vain for his wife. Amidst the carnage at the scene, he stumbled about calling her name, but she did not answer. The days that followed were bloody and chaotic. The injured and the dead were scattered about in makeshift hospitals and Hicks was unable to find her. In hopes that she might also be looking for him, he returned to his home in Chillicothe, believing that, if she was alive, she would look for him there.
Sadly, nearly two weeks passed with no sign of Nancy, so Hicks returned to Chatsworth. When he arrived, he was met with terrible news – his wife was dead. To make matters worse, she had been incorrectly identified as the wife of a man named Henry Clay. Her body had already been taken to Eureka, Illinois, where she had been buried in the Clay family plot. Nancy’s body was exhumed a short time later and she was reburied at the LaSalle Cemetery in Chillicothe.
And, after that, things started to get strange.
Years later, stories began to circulate in the community that the gravestone of Nancy Hicks was behaving in a very odd manner. People who passed by the cemetery at night began reporting that the stone was giving off an eerie glow in the darkness. Some even claimed that it looked like the light of a steam locomotive. Scores of curiosity-seekers flocked to the graveyard after dark to witness the glowing stone. No one could explain what caused the stone to glow. Tests were made on the stone of the monument to see if it had any special reflective qualities, but it seemed to be ordinary granite. Could the phantom light be a sign from the ghost of Nancy Hicks, still making her presence known after all of these years?
Unfortunately for ghost enthusiasts, the story was debunked in the late 1980s when burlap bags were used to form a barrier between the gravestone and the headlights on the road next to the cemetery. Somehow, with a number of bizarre angles that could not easily be seen, auto headlights were bouncing reflections off the stone, making it appear to glow. A few years later, homes were built between the road the cemetery, permanently blocking the auto headlights.
The “ghost” of Nancy Hicks had finally been laid to rest.