After 153 years, two local rail crossings are finally getting warning signals

I read a news story on the Oswego Ledger website a week or so ago and that got me to thinking about the history of safety in general and safety at rail crossings and crossing accidents in Kendall County in particular.

The story reported that the unprotected rail crossings at Jackson and North streets in Oswego will be signalized. Most of the funding will come from the Illinois Grade Crossing Protection Fund, with the rest coming from Illinois Railway, which is said to currently own the rail line.

Railroad accidents began happening almost as soon as the first rail line extended through the county in the early 1850s. That was the CB&Q’s main line that bent slightly to the southwest after crossing the Fox River at Aurora to run through northern Kendall County—Lewis Steward had offered to build a town if the line ran through his land. The railroad did, and the city of Plano was the result.

Original route of the Ottawa, Oswego & Fox River Valley Railroad from the Vermillion Coal Fields to Streator and then north to Ottawa and up the Fox River Valley to Geneva.

Next, the Fox River Branch Line opened in 1870 as the independent Oswego, Ottawa & Fox River Valley Rail Road. But the line was immediately—and not a little fraudulently—snapped up by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad.

As laid out, the OO&FRVRR ran from what was then called the Vermillion Coal Fields to Streator and then to Ottawa before turning due north along the Fox River all the way to Geneva. Its route took it through Oswego and its suburban neighbor to the north, the old Village of Troy, cutting slightly diagonally through the two long-established communities. That put the roadbed perilously close to some existing homes and businesses, including my great-great-grandparents’ house where my wife and I lived for about 10 years and not quite as close to my great-grandparents’ house next door, where my parents and I moved when they left and farm in 1954 and where my wife and I subsequently moved to spend 42 years of our marriage.

The house where my great-great grandparents lived–my great-great-grandmother’s rug loom sat in the small wing to the left–and where my wife and I lived for about 11 years. The Fox River Branch Line’s tracks ran parallel to the back of the house about 40 feet from our back door.

We were lucky, I guess, during the 72 years my family and I lived adjacent to the railroad there were no serious derailments on our branch line like the one that’s recently been in the news out in Ohio. About the most serious semi-recent local accident on our section of the line was in December 1972 when a youngster found a key for one of the switches on a siding in downtown Oswego, threw the switch, and derailed the three diesel engines on an 80-car CB&Q freight. Fortunately, neither the cars nor the engines overturned.

Almost immediately after the rail line opened in 1870, its trains were involved in a variety of accidents, from killing livestock that wandered on the tracks—locomotive cowcatchers actually caught cows back in those days—to hitting the unwary horse-drawn wagon or buggy at crossings.

In January 1870, just weeks after the stretch of line between Yorkville and Oswego opened to traffic, young Theodore Minkler was struck and killed by a southbound train when the lumber wagon he was driving was hit while crossing the tracks south of Oswego, thus becoming the first county fatality on our stretch of the new line.

All the accidents on the Fox River Branch didn’t happen at crossings, of course. On May Day, 1877, for instance, Oswego teacher Anna Brown took her elementary students on a nature walk down the tracks south of Oswego to collect wildflowers. According to the Kendall County Record: “As the five o’clock train came along a little boy, named Carpenter, about nine years old, was on a railroad bridge over a ravine and became frightened. Miss Brown ran on the bridge to help him off. She saved the boy, but the engine struck her, ran over her left foot and threw her from the bridge to the creek, ten feet below.” But Miss Brown, obviously a tough cookie, was helped back up out of the ravine and was taken to a doctor. She recovered, but walked with a limp and used a cane the rest of her long, eventful, and colorful life.

Oswego Fox River Creamery located on Ill. Route 25 just north of North Street and east of North Adams Street. Aurora Historical Society photo.

On the other hand, many accidents did indeed happen at rail crossings. In September 1883, according to the Record’s Oswego correspondent, cufflinks caused a near-fatality: “When Henry Johnston, a young fellow from Specie Grove, was returning from the Fox River Creamery [located north of downtown Oswego between modern Rt. 25 and the Fox River Branch right-of-way], and Charles Lehman the superintendent was riding down to town with him; Charley was engaged in readjusting his gold cuff buttons and the driver failed to look up the track, so they drove on the crossing just as the 10:14 passenger came along. The engine struck the hind wheel. Charley however had jumped, but being that he was run over by the horses and the wrecked wagon piled on top of him, he received a few scratches; Henry, who was thrown off with the wagon, wasn’t hurt a bit.”

Not that the Fox River Branch was the only local rail line where serious accidents happened, of course. The CB&Q’s main line on the west side of the Fox River crossed the West River Road—now Ill. Route 31—near the Wormley family farms. Called the Wormley Crossing, it was the site of a number of accidents some of which involved Wormley family members themselves. As the Record reported from Oswego on Dec. 19, 1872: “John H. Wormley was considerably hurt one day last week at the railroad crossing this side of Montgomery.”

A fast CB&Q passenger and mail train like this one hit Fannie Roberts as she drove her horse and buggy across the double tracks at Montgomery, Illinois in June 1889. She was lucky to escape with her life after being thrown 50 feet by the force of the collision. Neither the horse nor the buggy survived.

And on the morning of June 3, 1889, Fannie, wife of prominent Oswegoan Charles Roberts of Oswego, drove her horse and buggy into the path of a westbound passenger train while driving across the CB&Q’s main line tracks at Montgomery. She was seriously injured after her horse and buggy were thrown about 50 feet by the collision. Miraculously, she survived and was finally able to return home after spending a little over two months in the “new” Aurora hospital (the building adjacent to the old Copley Memorial Hospital that formerly housed the Copley School of Nursing and then the Aurora Blood Bank).

In 1918, Illinois voters approved a $60 million bond issue to build paved roads linking every county seat in the state to a new hard road system. In Yorkville, the Kendall County seat, that meant more traffic on already busy Bridge Street—now U.S. Route 47 through its downtown—and across the street’s Fox River Branch Line crossing. By early 1928, in light of the eminent paving of Route 47 through town, Yorkville had prevailed on the CB&Q to put up one of the new warning lights with bells at the busy crossing.

As the Record reported on Feb. 15: “After several years of faithful endeavor the village fathers have had the Burlington railroad interested sufficiently to put up a crossing light at Bridge street and the tracks. The new danger light is under construction and will be in the middle of the street, plainly visible to drivers and a wonderful relief to locomotive engineers.”

As might be imagined, however, state highway engineers had some serious safety concerns about a warning light atop a raised concrete base in the middle of a busy north-south state highway located at the bottom of steep grades in both directions.

So the state ordered the light-and-bell warning device moved to the side of the road But Yorkville officials, who liked it where it had been originally, finally prevailed in getting it moved back to the center of the highway. As the Record explained on Feb. 29, 1929: “There is not a better way in which to guard the crossing at Yorkville than this light and bell equipment. The fact that it is in the center of the street is more of a benefit than a menace. People will not be able to drive so fast through the main street and the traffic will be slowed up for those who wish to back out from the curb.”

And there the signal remained for a few decades before common sense—and frequent collisions—dictated the warning signal be moved to the sides of the street.

The all stainless steel Denver Zephyr set numerous speed records on its runs from Chicago to Denver and back again. In late June 1936 it maintained its on-time westbound record in spite of hitting the auto driven by Harley Shoger in Kendall County’s Bristol Township, killing both Shoger and his wife. (Everett L. DeGolyer Jr. collection of United States railroad photographs)

The increasing speed of trains as the years rolled by didn’t have much impact on the Fox River Branch Line, where the grades and curves it followed tended to keep speed down. But the speed on the CB&Q’s main line was a different thing. First improved steam locomotives began breaking speed records and then the Burlington introduced the streamlined diesel-powered Zephyrs, which were even faster. So fast, and so much quieter than their steam locomotive ancestors that they created new rail crossing danger.

On June 28, 1936, Mr. and Mrs. Harley Shoger were driving across the Burlington Main Line in rural Bristol Township when their car was struck by the racing Denver Zephyr, which was making a speed run west from Chicago. Mrs. Shoger was killed in the collision and her husband died shortly thereafter at Aurora’s St. Joseph Hospital.

But a couple of incidental crossing deaths couldn’t dampen the Burlington’s Zephyr spirit. As a CB&Q press release enthusiastically explained: “Capping the climax of their sensational performance since inauguration of the service May 31, the original Zephyr on June 28 gave a startling demonstration of its reserve stamina and speed. Delayed by striking an automobile near Bristol, the Zephyr made up an hour and twenty minutes in 700 miles from Galesburg, Ill. to Wray, Colo. and coasted into Denver exactly on the dot June 29 for the 29th consecutive day to maintain its perfect record.” So, yes, sorry about the two crossing deaths, the railroad seemed to say, but, hey, we managed to keep to the schedule in spite of them!

The Jackson Street crossing of the Fox River Branch Line at Oswego is one of two that will receive warning signals soon, according to news reports. The crossing is seen here with a diesel freight passing the CB&Q’s Oswego Depot in September 1965. (Little White School Museum collection)

There have been a few accidents over the years at the two Oswego crossings approved for signalization. But traffic across the stretch of rail line at the North Street and Jackson Street crossings has increased significantly during past years as more and more motorists use the Adams Street cutoff to avoid crowded Route 34 through Oswego. And it’s likely to increase even further with the construction of the new multi-story apartment building at Adams and Washington streets and plans for a second adjacent building.

But after those signals are installed, at least we shouldn’t have to worry about a young man getting his milk wagon smashed to smithereens at one of those crossings while admiring his gold cufflinks.

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Filed under Aurora, Business, Fox River, Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Montgomery, Oswego, People in History, Semi-Current Events, Technology, Transportation

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