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updated: 4/22/2014 10:19 AM

Naperville turns train wreck tragedy to 'Triumph' with sculpture

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  • Three figures fashioned out of railroad spikes make up the main element of the sculpture "Tragedy to Triumph" by Naperville artist Paul Kuhn, which will be dedicated Saturday to commemorate a 1946 train crash at the Loomis Street crossing in Naperville that killed 45 people.

      Three figures fashioned out of railroad spikes make up the main element of the sculpture "Tragedy to Triumph" by Naperville artist Paul Kuhn, which will be dedicated Saturday to commemorate a 1946 train crash at the Loomis Street crossing in Naperville that killed 45 people.
    Courtesy of Naperville Century Walk

  • A Kroehler Manufacturing employee and a sailor assist a woman injured in a 1946 train crash in Naperville in "Tragedy to Triumph," a sculpture depicting the community's response to the wreck, which will be dedicated at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Naperville Metra station, 105 E. 4th Ave.

      A Kroehler Manufacturing employee and a sailor assist a woman injured in a 1946 train crash in Naperville in "Tragedy to Triumph," a sculpture depicting the community's response to the wreck, which will be dedicated at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Naperville Metra station, 105 E. 4th Ave.
    Courtesy of Naperville Century Walk

  • Artist Paul Kuhn of Naperville measures angles for the sculpture "Triumph to Tragedy," which depicts community response to a 1946 train crash along what now is the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad. The $60,000 sculpture will be dedicated at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Naperville Metra station, 105 E. 4th Ave.

       Artist Paul Kuhn of Naperville measures angles for the sculpture "Triumph to Tragedy," which depicts community response to a 1946 train crash along what now is the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad. The $60,000 sculpture will be dedicated at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Naperville Metra station, 105 E. 4th Ave.
    Paul Michna | Staff Photographer

  • Naperville artist Paul Kuhn works on the beginning stages of the sculpture "Triumph to Tragedy," which will be dedicated at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Naperville Metra station, 105 E. 4th Ave.

       Naperville artist Paul Kuhn works on the beginning stages of the sculpture "Triumph to Tragedy," which will be dedicated at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Naperville Metra station, 105 E. 4th Ave.
    Paul Michna | Staff Photographer

 
 

One day after the 68th anniversary of a train wreck that killed 45 people, a crowd will gather at the crash site in Naperville to dedicate a sculpture in honor of the victims and those who came to their aid.

If the day after the 68th anniversary of an accident seems like a strange time to commemorate it with a piece of outdoor art, well, those who planned and fundraised for this sculpture don't disagree.

But Brand Bobosky, chairman of the public art nonprofit Century Walk Corp, said the sculpture's presence along the train line, now known as the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad, will prevent the tragedy that happened there in 1946 from slipping completely out of the community's conscience.

"Tragedy to Triumph," a sculpture made of refashioned railroad spikes and real 1940s-era train wheel sets by Naperville artist Paul Kuhn, will be dedicated during a ceremony at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Naperville Metra station, 105 E. 4th Ave.

It shows two men -- one an employee of nearby furniture factory Kroehler Manufacturing and another a sailor who had been on the train -- helping an injured woman escape the wreckage of a crash that occurred when one westbound train rear-ended another.

"Remembering this tragedy after 68 years, and the nearby neighbors and local citizens from Kroehler Manufacturing, North Central College, St. Peter and Paul (church) who so forthrightly and selflessly aided all victims, Century Walk has saved this remarkable event from being forgotten forever," Bobosky said.

"We are reminded what this sleepy little suburb accomplished almost 70 years ago and inspired of what we can do if called upon."

A book by former Naperville resident Chuck Spinner set the wheels in motion in terms of remembering the victims of the crash. Spinner spent five years researching "The Tragedy at the Loomis Street Crossing" before it came out in 2012, and during one research trip back to the site of the crash, he said he met with Bobosky and discussed the idea of a memorial.

Eventually, enough minds started thinking alike and a committee formed to commission what has turned into Kuhn's $60,000 sculpture.

Kuhn's family and industry ties made him perfect for the job. He works for a railroad salvage company, which helped him gather discarded railroad spikes and wheel sets to fashion into the sculpture's three human forms. And his grandmother and other relatives lived in town at the time of the crash, giving him access to firsthand accounts of how residents tried to rescue victims.

"Talking with them really helped get that feel of what they were going through," Kuhn said. "That's really what gave me the idea of I want to focus on the rescue efforts as being the main focus of the sculpture."

Kuhn began working on the sculpture in November with a photo shoot using models in period costume to stage the positions of the men and woman in the piece.

Soon, he said he was spending 12 hours on the sculpture each day, seven days a week. His workload increased to 15 hours a day, seven days a week in January, and continued that way until he finished the sculpture April 7 after a couple all-nighters.

"Time was definitely the roughest part of the whole job," Kuhn said. "It was apparent that I was achieving what I wanted as far as the look and everything was going really well as far as the sculpting. It was literally about how many hours a day I could put into it."

The finished product will be life-size, with figures less than six feet tall and train wheels scattered away from the three human forms.

Laying the foundation to hold the sculpture's combined 15,000 pounds of metal in place and posting a plaque with the names of the 45 people who died atop a piece of rail are some of the last steps Kuhn and his team will complete before Saturday's dedication.

Aside from giving the community a visible marker of the tragedy and residents' heroic response, the sculpture is providing a comfort for relatives of those killed in the wreck, Spinner and Bobosky said.

Spinner said about 70 family members of train crash victims, with whom he connected while researching his book, will attend the dedication from as close as Quincy, Ill., or as far as California.

"This is the first time they will ever be together with other people whose families were affected by the same situation," Spinner said. "It really has brought closure, I think, to the families. That's why they're coming from far and near."

Ken Ralston of Glen Ellyn and Jack Ralston of Tennessee, whose father, John, died in the crash, will speak at Saturday's dedication along with Spinner and Kuhn.

Adding to the events of the weekend are two free, public presentations Spinner is making about the story behind the crash. On Friday, he will give a talk at 7 p.m. at Nichols Library in downtown Naperville, 200 W. Jefferson Ave. And at 10 a.m. Saturday, Spinner will review the crash for family members of those killed and others at St. Peter and Paul Catholic Church, 36 N. Ellsworth St.

When the dedication is complete and the sculpture stands tall, Bobosky said it will live up to its name by turning death and destruction into history and remembrance.

"Truly," he said, "this sculpture evidences that tragedy was turned into triumph by the railroad."

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