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Town Prepares To Mark 100th Anniversary Of Train Disaster

August 8, 1987

CHATSWORTH, Ill. (AP) _ Some 50 people gathered outside town Saturday at the site of one of the nation’s worst train wrecks while four ministers placed a black wreath and read the names of the people killed 100 years ago.

A jammed excursion train was headed for Niagara Falls, N.Y., on Aug. 10, 1887, when engineer David Sutherland spotted a burning wooden bridge ahead of him on the Toledo, Peoria & Western Railroad line.

Locomotive 21 cleared the bridge before it crumbled, but the second engine overturned in the shallow ditch. Many of the 15 cars slammed into each other in a chain-reaction that left an estimated 85 people dead and 372 injured.

″The bridge collapsed but the cars just kept coming - telescoping, each demolishing the one in front,″ said Louise Stoutemyer, a retired teacher and journalist who published a book about the wreck. ″People were crushed in their seats, smashed, decapitated.″

There was no local hospital and many of the injured were cared for in private homes.

The weekend observance about two miles east of this small east-central Illinois town was organized by the Chatsworth Train Wreck Society.

In Chatsworth, about two miles west, there were railroad displays, flea markets, souvenirs, games and refreshments.

A state historical marker on a highway near the wreck site says about 85 people died in the crash, but some estimates put the number at 87.

The more than 600 passengers on the train had paid $7.50 for the excursion, which originated at LaHarpe, in western Illinois. The train was running late that Wednesday as it left Chatsworth just before midnight. Apparently, someone had been burning weeds near the bridge and the flames ignited the span’s wooden supports.

After the crash, the crew aboard locomotive 21 raced into nearby Piper City with ″the bell ringing and the whistle blowing,″ while the brakeman ran back to Chatsworth, Mrs. Stoutemyer said. People woke up and rushed to the scene, with volunteers scooping dirt to extinguish flames.

The passengers cars were heaped 15 feet in the air. Many of the screaming, injured people were trapped inside with the mutilated bodies of the dead. Before dawn, rain soaked volunteers and victims.

Rescue trains brought doctors from towns like Thawville and Sibley, and others arrived by horse and buggy. Nurses carried bolts of cloth to wrap the wounded.

The victims were taken to Chatsworth and Piper City. Mrs. Stoutemyer said one witness described ″bodies piled up like hardwood at the depot,″ and dead children were placed on the schoolhouse floor, with the names of those who could be identified written on the blackboard.

When public buildings were filled with the injured, additional casualties were taken to private homes. Some stayed for weeks until they were well enough to be moved.

″They were strangers, but people cared for them like members of the family,″ said Mrs. Stoutemyer. ″I think small-town people respond that way, and they’d do it today.″

The TP&W eventually paid $305,000 in damages and was forced into receivership.

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