What does it take to make a hero? What, in fact, does that word really mean?
We tend to throw “hero” around a lot these days. Sports stars in each generation, from Babe Ruth to Walter Payton to Michael Jordan are described as heroes. Men and women who served in Afghanistan and Iraq were described as heroes. The hostages held in Iran back in the ’80s were called heroes.
But sports heroism consists mostly of being born with physical gifts and then using them to earn lots of money performing in front of sports fans. Not much actual heroism there. The men and women serving in the military were doing their jobs—tough jobs—and doing them very well. Those who left family and friends (including female soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines who left spouses and children including newborn babies, and their homes) certainly verged on heroism if they didn’t exactly achieve it. The diplomats imprisoned by the Iranians 40+ years ago weren’t precisely heroes, although they acted, for the most part, heroically.
Local heroes are hard to come by, too. Perhaps that’s because we live in such a mundane community that there is little need for heroism here in northern Illinois. But we’ve had a few. Oswego native Slade Cutter was a bonafide World War II hero. Teenager Robinson B. Murphy was a legitimate hero, earning the Medal of Honor during the Civil War. And teacher Anna Brown achieved hero status in 1877 by saving one of her students from being run over by a train at the expense of losing part of a foot, crippling her for the rest of her life.
Several years ago, while going through some newspaper clippings donated to the Little White School Museum in Oswego, I came across another real life local hero. Just a year older than young Robinson B. Murphy, she nonetheless selflessly endangered her own life to save others.
Helen Gilmour was just 16 years old on that Tuesday afternoon in April 1943 when she stood waiting for the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad’s gas-electric motor car—locals all called it the Dinky—to pull into the Oswego depot down at Jackson and South Adams streets.
The country was in the midst of World War II. Gilmour, a student at Oswego High School, was waiting at the Oswego depot to take the Dinky to Aurora to help her parents, Mr. and Mrs. James Gilmour of Wheatland Township, celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary.
But although it had been scheduled to arrive at 4:05 p.m., the car was running an hour and a half late due to engine trouble at Streator.
Following the end of regular interurban trolley service in the late 1920s, the Chicago Burlington & Quincy Railroad began using the Dinky, which looked like a large trolley car, to provide daily passenger service from Streator to Aurora. The 58-mile Fox River Branch Line linked Streator with Aurora via Ottawa, Millington, Yorkville, Oswego, and Montgomery. The service was convenient and economical, offering residents of all those communities the public transportation option to commute to Aurora or Ottawa for jobs, school, and recreation in an era when two-car families were rare.
The Dinky, formally identified as Car 9850, was built in 1928 and was powered by a 275-horsepower gasoline engine that turned an electric generator that, in turn, powered the electric motors that turned the wheels.
The blocky car—no streamlined beauty—was painted a bright orange red, was nearly 78 feet long, and was divided into an engine and control compartment, a Railway Post Office compartment, a baggage compartment, and a passenger compartment seating 32 people.
On that relatively warm April afternoon, the Dinky finally arrived in Oswego about 5:30 p.m. and the waiting passengers, including Helen Gilmour and one of her OHS schoolmates, 17 year-old Harold Alderman, hurried aboard. Motorman F.E. Bishop of Galesburg gunned the noisy engine and the car accelerated, heading north up the grade towards Montgomery. As the car clattered across the Waubonsie Creek trestle near downtown Oswego, mail clerk Paul Chrysler of Elmhurst and Chicago Assistant Chief Clerk John G. Gall of the U.S. Railway Mail Service sorted mail and baggage man Chalmers O. Kerchner of Streator prepared for the short run to Aurora. Conductor P.H. Follard kept track of the occupants of the passenger compartment in the car’s rear.
The Dinky sounded the distinctive “Blat!” of its horn at the North Street, North Adams, and Second Street crossings as it clattered up the gentle grade and across the Route 25 viaduct, laboring to reach 20 mph.
Meanwhile, a CB&Q steam engine and caboose, with engineer Leo Kasid at the throttle, had started from Montgomery south on that same Fox River line to pick up a string of loaded hopper cars at the gravel pits south of Oswego. Fireman R.L. Parker stoked the engine’s boiler with coal as brakemen G.P. Schwartz and E.L. Shields and conductor D.R. Clark settled in the caboose for the short ride down the line to the gravel pit siding. Crossing the Fox River where Boulder Hill would one day be developed, the short train picked up speed as it steamed down the slight grade and around the gentle curve leading to Oswego.
It all seemed routine, but, as the Interstate Commerce Commission report on the accident noted about that stretch of track: “…the view of an engine approaching from the opposite direction is restricted to a distance of 753 feet, because of the cut and the track curvature.”
In addition, Kasid had not read the stack of dispatches he’d picked up on the way south, instead reading them as the train steamed down the grades. Possibly distracted by reading the dispatches, Kasid, who assumed the Dinky had passed that stretch of tracks an hour and a half earlier, didn’t see the Dinky coming towards him around the blind curve.
As a result, just after 5:30 p.m., roughly in back of today’s Oswegoland Civic Center, the steam engine crashed full speed into the Dinky, smashing five feet into the lighter weight car, pushing it 93 feet back down the track before the engine could be stopped.
Minnesota Falk, who lived about 300 yards from the crash site, told a reporter she heard the smash-up in her house and given the on-going war, feared the worst: “I heard the crash and thought it was the Nazis bombing the tracks,” she said.
Dinky motorman Bishop along with baggage man Kerchner and the two post office employees, all riding in the front of the car, were killed almost instantly.
In addition, the Dinky’s fuel tank ruptured and then the fumes exploded, spraying 160 gallons of burning gasoline in all directions, engulfing the front half of the car in flames. Burning gasoline flowed downhill back towards the passenger compartment from the shattered fuel tank, setting everything in its path ablaze.
As the dazed passengers sat in danger of being incinerated, young Helen Gilmour, despite the ankle sprain she sustained in the collision, jumped up and began shepherding the traumatized survivors out of the blazing car.
“I just remembered what I had learned in first aid,” she later told a local newspaper. “We were taught not to get excited, so I didn’t; but it was pretty bad. The injured were lying all over the field. It looked just like a battlefield.”
Her schoolmate, Harold Alderman, critically injured, was rushed to St. Charles Hospital in Aurora, where he later died. A number of other passengers were also seriously injured, including the entire crew of the steam train.
The subsequent Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) investigation found the freight train, because the Dinky was running more than an hour late, was supposed to have waited at Montgomery until the Dinky passed. But faults in the communication system resulted in the failure to inform the locomotive’s crew of the on-coming passenger car. In fact, the steam engine crew, busy reading their stack of orders, never even saw the Dinky before the collision. Why the Dinky’s engineer both failed to see the approaching train and apply his brakes was never adequately explained.
In its accident report, the ICC strongly recommended that all gasoline electric passenger cars be transitioned to diesel engines, which use less explosive fuel. Further, since the surviving train crew said they’d never have proceeded had block signals been installed and working on the Fox River Branch line, the report recommended the railroad install the signals along the entire Aurora to Streator line.
Helen Gilmour went on to graduate from Oswego High in 1945. The community mourned young Alderman’s death. And while much of the mail Chrysler and Gall were sorting at their time of their death was incinerated, some of the letters were saved, arriving at their destinations charred and streaked with soot, causing not a little consternation among local military personnel serving overseas.
The demolished Dinky was replaced, despite the ICC’s warning, by another gas-electric car that provided service until the CB&Q discontinued it, with the last scheduled passenger car on the Aurora to Streator branch finishing its run on Feb. 2, 1952.
That marked not only the end of the Dinky, but also the end of the passenger train era on the Fox River Branch Line that had begun in 1870. It was also the final reminder of the deadly, fiery crash late on that April afternoon in 1943.