As we at the Legends and Lore of Illinois know, the State of Illinois has a rich history, and unfortunately, it has also been the scene of many of the worst disasters in American history. While many of these disasters have informed our tapestry of legends and ghost stories, we also must never forget the pain of the victims or the heroism of the first responders. Join us as we look at the top 10 most tragic disasters in Illinois.
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10. 1946 Naperville Train Disaster
On the afternoon of April 26, 1946, the engineer of a Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad passenger train, the Advance Flyer, made an unscheduled stop at the Naperville station to check his running gear. This proved to be a fatal mistake, because another passenger train, the Exposition Flyer, came barreling toward him at 85mph. By the time the engineer of the Exposition Flyer realized what was happening, it was too late. The resulting collision destroyed both trains, killed 47 passengers, and injured around 125. The nearby Kroehler building, a furniture manufacturer, became a make-shift morgue and its employees became rescue volunteers. Because of this accident, passenger trains in the United States now generally travel at or below 79mph.
9. 1887 Chatsworth Train Wreck
At around midnight on the hot summer night of August 10, 1887, a train full of 700 passengers bound for Niagara Falls crossed a partially burnt bridge, causing it to collapse. The first engine made it across safely, but the trestle collapsed under the second. This caused a chain reaction in which the six wooden passenger cars cascaded into each other. The Chicago Times reported, “The groans of men and the screams of women united to make an appalling sound, and above all could be heard the agonizing cries of little children as in some instances they lay pinned alongside their dead parents.” Many of the passengers were saved because the rear sleeper cars stopped before they reached the wreckage, but unfortunately nearly 85 passengers were killed and between 169 and 372 were injured. It was one of the worst train wrecks in United States history. It was thought that the trestle collapsed because of a controlled burn that had not been properly extinguished.
8. Saint Anthony’s Hospital Fire
St. Anthony’s Hospital opened on September 15, 1877. Its mission, as established by the Hospital Sisters of Saint Francis, was to care for the sick and the poor in rural Illinois. The white habits of the Franciscan nuns were a welcome sight in the community. Tragically, at midnight on April 4, 1949, a fire ravaged the hospital. “Neighbors awakened by screams and the tinkling crash of breaking windows, ran out to stare into a nightmare,” Time Magazine reported. Between 74 and 77 people, including ten newborn babies, were killed out of the 116 patients and ten staff. Fern Riley, a 22-year-old nurse, refused to leave the nursery and died alongside the newborns. The superintendent of St. Anthony’s, Frank Ries, also perished when he ran back into the burning building to try and rescue his wife. The hospital was rebuilt in 1952, but the heroism of the hospital staff and Effingham firefighters will always be remembered.
7. Our Lady of Angels School Fire
Our Lady of Angels was a Catholic elementary school serving a predominantly Italian-American neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago. It was a large institution with around 1,600 students. On December 1, 1958, a fire ravaged the school, killing 92 students and three nuns, and injuring over 100. It was the third worst school disaster in American history. While the exterior of the school was brick, its interior was mainly wood and its floors were coated in a flammable wax. The fire began in a basement trash bin, and it went unnoticed for a critical period of time because smoke detectors had not yet become commercially available. Once the nuns of Our Lady of Angels were alerted to the danger, however, they worked heroically to save their students. Many were trapped and forced to leap from the windows to escape the smoke and flames. 42 victims of the fire were interred in Queen of Heaven Cemetery in Hillside and a monument was erected there called the “Shrine of the Holy Innocents.” Survivors of the disaster have worked hard to preserve the memory of the fire and the legacy of its victims.
6. 1947 Centralia Mine Disaster
On March 25, 1947, Centralia Coal Company Mine No. 5 exploded with 142 people inside. 65 miners died instantly of severe burns, while 45 were killed by afterdamp, a toxic mixture of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen released by the explosion. Miraculously, eight miners survived trapped under the surface and were rescued, but one succumbed to his injuries. Woody Guthrie’s song “The Dying Miner” is about the disaster, and the site is now marked by a memorial plaque.
5. 1909 Cherry Mine Disaster
The 1909 Cherry Mine fire was the third worst mine disaster in United States history, claiming 259 lives. The fire started on November 13, when kerosene from a lantern dripped into a cart full of hay left for the mules that were used to pull coal cars out of the mine. The fire quickly spread, overwhelming the fan house and the escape ladders, trapping many of the miners inside. Nearly two dozen men survived the fire by sealing themselves behind a wall deep in the mine, where they waited for eight days until the fire subsided and the poisonous gasses disbursed. After the disaster, the Illinois legislature established strict mine safety guidelines.
4. Crash of Flight 191
Des Plaines, IL
On May 25, 1979, a McDonnell Douglas DC-10 airliner (American Airlines Flight 191) crashed just moments after takeoff from O’Hare International Airport, killing all 258 passengers and 13 crew on board, along with two persons on the ground. It was later determined that an engine detachment due to improper maintenance was the cause of the crash. To this day, it remains the single deadliest airline accident on American soil. The debris field of Flight 191 was located at the end of the runway near a mobile home park in Des Plaines. Since the accident, residents of this mobile home park have reported odd electrical disturbances and even seeing phantom passengers carrying luggage and wandering the grounds.
3. Iroquois Theater Fire
On December 30, 1903, five weeks after the Iroquois’ grand opening, the worst theater fire in American history tore through the building, claiming the lives of 572 people. Another 30 later died of their injuries. In the alley behind the theater, 125 bodies were piled up, some of them after having leapt to their deaths from the fire escape. Today, the area is relatively quiet, but residents of the building behind the theater occasionally report feelings of uneasiness, as well as unexplained sounds they believe are tied to this disaster.
2. Eastland Disaster
On a hot July day in 1915, over 800 people lost their lives when an excursion steamer called the Eastland capsized on the Chicago River. Although the Eastland had recently passed inspection, it was too top heavy to handle the more than 2,700 passengers who crowded on board. As the ship left the dock, it began to tilt until there was nothing the crew could do to keep it upright. Many passengers were trapped inside when the Eastland capsized; many more drowned. Many of the bodies were brought to the 2nd Regiment Armory, which later became Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Studios. After the disaster, the Eastland was purchased by the US Navy and renamed the USS Wilmette.
1. Great Chicago Fire
While not as deadly as some of the other disasters on this list, the Great Chicago Fire devastated four square miles of the city and caused untold damage that fundamentally altered its development. The fire started on October 8, 1871 and burned for two full days, until a rainstorm extinguished the flames. Despite a long-held myth about a cow kicking over a lantern at the O’Leary farm, the real origin of the fire remains unknown to this day. As a result of the conflagration, 17,500 buildings were destroyed, hundreds killed, and over 90,000 people were left homeless. Despite this horrific loss, Chicago rose again to become the third largest city in the United States.
Check out these places and more in Michael Kleen’s Haunting Illinois: A Tourist’s Guide to the Weird and Wild Places of the Prairie State! Haunting Illinois contains 200 mystery sites and 85 individual illustrations. In this book, Michael not only examines the sites, but also the hobbyists and professionals who have devoted their lives to exploring the strange and unusual in our great state. Divided among eight distinct regions and listed by county, each location features a description, directions, and sources drawn from a diverse variety of books and articles. Haunting Illinois challenges you to get off the couch and start exploring our wonderful State of Illinois. Go here to order!
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