1946 train crash to be memorialized in Naperville sculpture
The 45 people who died almost seven decades ago in a tragic train crash in Naperville will be memorialized next spring as a public art group unveils a sculpture by a railroad subcontractor and a native of the city.
"Tragedy to Triumph" is the name of the sculpture Paul Kuhn of Naperville is creating to honor victims of the crash that shook the community on April 25, 1946, when two trains collided just east of the railroad station.
For all of the pain it caused, the crash ultimately did much to improve railroad safety, leading the Burlington Railroad to separate departure times of trains traveling on the same track by at least 15 minutes and prompting signal systems nationwide to add a flashing yellow light to give engineers more time to stop.
But the memorial Kuhn is creating will be the first to pay respects to the lives lost in the crash.
"People coming together to help each other is really what I want to focus on," Kuhn said about his sculpture, which will be formed entirely from recycled railroad parts -- melted rail spikes and old train wheels, things he has obtained through his work as a subcontractor for a railroad company.
Naperville Century Walk, a nonprofit organization that has placed 44 pieces of art in public locations since 1996, is commissioning Kuhn's $60,000 sculpture in an effort Chairman Brand Bobosky said was motivated by a book about the crash.
"We think it's right to remember this event and the people who perished," Bobosky said.
The book "The Tragedy at the Loomis Street Crossing," was released last year, the product of five years of research on the crash victims, survivors, stories and circumstances by Chuck Spinner, a Naperville native who was born shortly after the 1946 accident. Spinner, who now lives in New York, said he felt compelled to research and write about the crash's history once he retired from a teaching career.
"These were people whose lives were taken much too early," Spinner said of the 45 passengers killed when one westbound train leaving Chicago rear-ended another that had stopped because of concerns with its undercarriage. "It's nice to commemorate their lives and what they had achieved and sort of the spirit they brought to others."
Bobosky said Spinner's local presentations about the book last year brought the crash back to the minds of several prominent residents, who then began meeting as the "train wreck committee" to develop plans for a memorial.
The committee accepted Kuhn's proposal in November and he now is working full-time on completing it before the scheduled dedication date of April 26, 2014 -- one day after the 68th anniversary of the crash. The weekend scheduling should allow more people from out of town, such as relatives of those who died in the crash, to attend the ceremony, Bobosky said.
"Tragedy to Triumph" will be located at the far eastern edge of the platform at what now is Naperville's downtown Metra station at 101 E. 4th Ave. It will show two men on either side of a woman injured in the crash, helping her walk with her arms over their shoulders in the "human crutch" position. Train wheels will be scattered around the three human figures and a plaque will list the names of those who died.
One of the men to be portrayed in the sculpture represents the Naperville residents who helped respond to the emergency, which took place in a town with no hospital and only a volunteer fire department.
Bobosky said the various functions of the "sleepy little town" of nearly 5,000 people came together that day, with workers at the town's biggest employer, Kroehler Manufacturing Co., leading the way and North Central College students stepping in to assist.
The other man in the sculpture will represent members of the military, since several crash survivors were enlisted soldiers returning home from deployment.
Kuhn, whose family has lived in Naperville for generations, said several relatives remember the crash and were among those who pitched in to respond. As he was developing his proposal for the sculpture, he sought their recollections and tried to "put myself into the project."
"I really had to sit down and think about what happened and how this affected the community," Kuhn said.
Talking with his relatives helped, he said.
"The whole concept was to show the community coming together and helping out during such a traumatic event."