A look at St. Charles' history of disastrous train wrecks

  • On Saturday, June 13, 1908, a Great Western freight engine plunged across East Main Street in St. Charles and smashed into Matteson's Meat Market.

    On Saturday, June 13, 1908, a Great Western freight engine plunged across East Main Street in St. Charles and smashed into Matteson's Meat Market. Courtesy of St. Charles History Museum

 
 
Posted9/11/2020 6:00 AM

If someone were to say, "St. Charles is a train wreck," it would be accurate -- if it references the city's past bad luck with the rail system's tracks downtown and west of town.

St. Charles had more than its share of terrible train accidents, representing a piece of its history we can all be thankful is far in the city's rearview mirror.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Residents going about their business in downtown St. Charles on Saturday, June 13, 1908, were in for a shock. A Great Western freight engine plunged across East Main Street and smashed into Matteson's Meat Market. In those days, trains made their way across Main Street regularly, and photos of that accident look as if that meat market was just west of what is now Smitty's on the Corner delicatessen.

The St. Charles Chronicle reported the engine was bringing coal to the nearby powerhouse but lost its grip on the rails when a switch failed. It did not mention any serious injuries.

The engine came sliding down what the newspaper called "a slope like a Rocky Mountain trail" with a heavy load that was far too much for the engineer to do anything about stopping.

The result was nothing short of panic in downtown St. Charles. It took several hours before an engine from Chicago arrived to pull the Great Western freight back on the tracks.

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A few years before that downtown mess, St. Charles, unfortunately, endured a couple of deadly mishaps west of town.

In late November of 1901, one passenger, 12-year-old Rose Root of Sycamore, was killed and six others injured in a crash along the Great Western Railway. It was called one of the most disastrous train wrecks the area had ever seen when one train smashed into the rear of another.

Residents were stunned when two more train wrecks unfolded in the same area two years later in 1903. Newspaper accounts indicated those accidents occurred on successive nights in late January. One night, a freight train had sidetracked because the steam got too hot in its engine. The following night a combination mail and baggage car train encountered a broken rail and slid down an embankment. The engineer died, and 13 other people were seriously injured.

The city was able to go a few decades before another train wreck took place between St. Charles and Wasco, at a culvert just west of St. Charles.

St. Charles has had more than its share of terrible train accidents, including this one that happened in 1908.
St. Charles has had more than its share of terrible train accidents, including this one that happened in 1908. - Courtesy of St. Charles History Museum

In early December of 1937, more than 30 passengers were injured in that accident when a broken piece of rail again sent the entire train off the track and down a 30-foot embankment.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Before she left the St. Charles History Museum for an executive director's position at the Lombard Historical Society, Alison Costanzo explained how St. Charles ultimately could do without tracks going right through the middle of town.

"In the past, the freight rail network had routes to Moline Malleable or to the Cable factory," she said. "Without that industry any longer in St. Charles, it made no sense to continue to have trains crossing Main Street."

One of St. Charles history's interesting aspects is that it had the freight train and trolley car tracks in town. "If they still had the trolley for a number of years, it would be a different type of Main Street landscape today," Costanzo added.

Batavia Mayor Jeff Schielke has noted that the description of this region as the Tri-Cities likely originated as part of the trolley cars' route through central Kane County. They were referred to as stops in the "tri-cities," he said.

A quick guide on festivals:

In this strangest of years, some of our favorite festivals have been set aside for smaller versions of community fun. It might be getting kind of difficult to keep track of what is what. So here's a note on a couple of important pandemic-year festival recasts.

St. Charles Scarecrow Festival has been one of the bigger events during October for more than 30 years. But this year, it has become the Scarecrow Stroll, a mini version of the festival, if you will.

The stroll takes place Oct. 9 through 11 throughout downtown St. Charles, rather than a jam-packed event in Lincoln Park in front of St. Patrick's Church.

The other big one at this time of year is the Festival of the Vine in Geneva, and its Flavor Fare presentation of food samples from prominent restaurants in the city under a huge tent at State and Fourth streets.

This year, it's been revamped to "Sip and Sample," an event taking place the entire month of September. Visitors can purchase a $20 ticket online or for an extra dollar through curbside pickup at the Geneva Chamber of Commerce, for a wine or beer with an appetizer or dessert sampling at a participating restaurant.

The St. Charles Park District is taking a similar approach with its "Sip & Stroll," a new event from 1 to 6:45 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 12, in Mount St. Mary Park.

At $30 per ticket, visitors choose a time slot to sample local ciders, wines and beers while walking through the park and enjoying the various sculptures.

Sure, the pandemic has put a wrench in some of our favorite events, but the St. Charles Business Alliance, Geneva Chamber of Commerce and St. Charles Park District have come up with ideas to take a little of that sting out.

Break out the wine:

Geneva Winery, which opened two weeks ago at 426 S. Third St., appears to be a popular spot already.

It didn't hurt that, for the most part, the weather for the first week to 10 days of business featured some beautiful afternoons and evenings.

Thus, the outdoor seating was filled pretty consistently.

The winery takes a location in Suite 1A that formerly featured women's clothing boutiques.

Celebrating our foundation:

Regardless of one's political leanings, we shouldn't forget what the foundation of this country is all about.

St. Charles veterans' groups are promoting that premise with a celebration of the country's founding documents from noon to 2 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 17, the date of Constitution Day, to take place at the St. Charles Freedom Shrine.

The shrine, located near the former police department along the city's Freedom Walk, displays all of the country's most important documents. The Tri-Cities Exchange Club built the outdoor shrine more than 20 years ago.

Those attending will have time to view the documents and participate in a short presentation before walking to the nearby St. Charles Veterans Center for a flagpole dedication, closing remarks and light refreshments. Free pocket Constitutions and flags will be available for attendees. All are asked to practice social distancing during the ceremony and walk.

St. Charles Veterans Center, American Legion Post 342, VFW Post 5036, AMVETS Post 503 and Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 693 are hosting the event.

In case of inclement weather, the ceremony will take place at the Charleston Center, 311 N. Second St. The St. Charles Veterans Center is located among various businesses in Charleston Center.

• Contact dheun@sbcglobal.net

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