Tragedy at Granville - November 24, 1936

Vol. XXI No. 1 - SPRING 2010

By: LeRoy Blommaert

The “L,” so long a vital transportation artery for Edgewater, became a source of tragedy one November early evening in 1936, when a north bound North Shore electric train smashed into the rear of a north bound Evanston express train stopped north of Granville. Nine people died almost immediately and two died several days later. The total – 11 dead – caused it to be deadliest accident on the elevated system ever recorded, until an accident more than 40 years later at Wabash and Lake on February 4, 1977, eclipsed it by one death to snatch the unwanted title.

Here is a contemporary – and very lively – Chicago Tribune account the day after [November 24, 1936]:

The Evanston train was standing at a switch 50 feet north of the Granville avenue station of the elevated lines, a half block east of Broadway, in the Edgewater district.

The first steel car of the North Shore train plowed all the way through the wooden rear coach of the Evanston train, shearing off its roof and splintering it like a match box. It was the worst elevated lines accident in Chicago history.

All of the dead and all except one of the injured were in the wrecked wooden coach.

Both trains were on the east, or express track. The Evanston train, which switches over to the local tracks at this point in order to make a stop at Loyola avenue, was blocked at the switch by a northbound train on the local track

Behind the Evanston train of eight cars came the three car North Shore Line train bound for Mundelein, which was scheduled to continue north on the express track and to pass the Evanston train after the latter switched over west to the local track.

Just north of the Granville station is a signal tower which regulates the switch.

The elevated tracks at this point are perfectly straight for a distance of a mile and a half to the south. It was pitch dark, but two red lights glimmered on the rear of the Evanston train. Its passengers, Homewood bound, noticed the train come to a halt for the switch and chafed at the delay.

Suddenly they heard a whistle scream behind them, then a terrifying crash as the North Shore Line train struck the rear coach.

This old wooden car had no chance. Crushed between the plowing steel coach behind and the steel coach just ahead of it in the Evanston train, the light wooden frame crumpled into sudden wreckage. Sides, seats and floor splintered into a myriad pieces.

The steel car from behind drove through and stopped only a few feet from the steel car ahead. The old wooden coach was shattered – part of its roof rested on the top of the car which struck it. The steel cars, except for broken windows, were almost undamaged.

The scene was instantly one of terror and confusion. Darkness cast a blanket over the shapeless mass of steel and wood splinters, twisted seats, shattered glass and, more shocking than all this, the 75 passengers thrown into huddles of screaming, moaning and desolately silent victims of a thousand hurts.

Residents of the neighborhood heard the whistle of the North Shore train, then the crash. They saw the passengers flung from the telescoped coach, saw them falling into the alley that runs along the east side of the tracks.

Edward Price, who lives in an apartment overlooking the elevated embankment at 6150 Winthrop avenue, was one of those first to reach the scene.

“The North Shore whistle sounded three of four times,” he said. “The train was moving at a lively clip and I could see it was going to crash into the Evanston train. I heard the screech of the brakes.”

“The North Shore train swayed back and forth as it slowed down. The lights went out. Just before the crash they came on again, then they went out. There were flames in the wreckage. I ran to the telephone and called the fire department. Then I ran downstairs as fast as I could. I found people lying in the alley. I helped to pull them to an adjoining automobile driveway.”

A curious footnote to human reactions in the presence of tragedy was added by Joseph Iaculla, 17 years old, 1429 Thome avenue, who sells newspapers under the elevated at Granville avenue. When he heard the crash he took out his watch.

“It was exactly four minutes when the first fire apparatus got here,” he said. “The first police ambulance arrived nine minutes after the crash.”

With the arrival of police and firemen a great throng gathered at the scene. Private automobiles and trucks were commandeered to take the injured to the Edgewater, Swedish Covenant, Ravenswood, Rogers-Fost, Evanston and St. Francis hospitals.

Firemen raised ladders along the elevated embankment and carried injured passengers down. Others were carried along the tracks to the Granville station and down the steps there. When stretchers ran out the rescuers used seats from the wrecked car to carry the victims.

Police Commissioner Altman, notified of the tragedy, ordered all available police from north and northwest side stations to help in the rescue work and keep back the crowds.

There were more than 500 police at the scene, two companies of firemen, twenty police ambulances, and three fire department ambulances.

After all the injured had been removed to hospitals, police details were stationed at each of these to control the crowds which swarmed at the doors.

Among the first to reach the scene were three Catholic priests. They administered the last rites of the church to injured persons who appeared to be dying. The clergymen were the Very Reverend J.G. Kieley and the Rev. Thomas Doherty, of St. Gertrude’s church, and the Rev. Howard Ahern, a member of the faculty at De Paul university.

A story of the first rescue work came from William Biesel of Libertyville, who was riding in the first coach of the North Shore train, sitting with Champ Carry, vice-president of the Pullman company, who lives in Mundelein.

“We hardly felt the crash,” Biesel said, “but there was a tremendous noise. We climbed down onto the track, and saw a woman lying close to the third rail. Her skirt was beginning to burn. We pulled her away, beat out the flames and got her over to the station platform. Next we picked up two men. Both had been thrown all the way across the adjoining tracks.”

William Helm … an investment broker … said he was not surprised the accident had occurred.

“I have been taking the train almost regularly for a number of years,” he said. “Each evening a few moments after the express switches onto the local track the North Shore roars by on the express track. I have often thought that the timing of the two trains was too close for safety.”

Postscript:

The North Shore Line, formally named the Chicago, North Shore and Milwaukee Electric Railway, operated over the elevated into the loop from August 6, 1919, until January 21, 1963, when it abandoned operations. It operated a branch line west to Mundelein, but its main line was along the Skokie Valley line to Milwaukee. Its original line in Illinois, later called the “shore line,” went through the North Shore suburbs and generally paralleled the Chicago and North Western. After the introduction of the Skokie Valley bypass in 1926, the original line was devoted to local service. It was abandoned first, in 1955. North Shore Line trains never stopped in Edgewater. However, Edgewater residents could board trains at either the Wilson or Howard “L” station. Service was very frequent and express trains made the trip from downtown Chicago to downtown Milwaukee in two hours. Given the limited speed it could attain on the elevated south of Wilson and in running on the streets of Milwaukee, this was an impressive performance. There is still Evanston express service [the purple line], but now it is express all the way to Howard along the express tracks and does not stop at Loyola and Morse.

Editors Note: As stated in the article, the source is the Chicago Tribune. The citing is as follows:

“L” Crash Kills 9, Hurts 58
Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963) Nov. 25, 1936
ProQuest Historical Newspapers Chicago Tribune 1849-1986) pg. 1