The weather on the first weekend, a Labor Day weekend, of September 1926 had been prefect for those who had the money and time to take a short vacation. A favorite vacation area for Chicagoans was the series of lakes around Lake Geneva, Wisconsin as well as Lake Geneva itself. The Chicago and North Western Railroad made it easy for weekenders to visit the sparkling lakes and picnic pavilions there. Excursion fares to such communities as Crystal Lake and Richmond, Illinois and to Pell Lake, Lake Como, Lake Geneva and Lake Geneva’s Williams Bay were less than $3 per person for a round trip.

Swimming, sailing, picnicking, exploring the quaint shops of those villages along with simply sunning along placid lake waters soothed, for a short time at least, thoughts of crowded and hectic city living. Additionally, for the adults, beer, wine, and stronger spirits were readily available during the crazy time called the “Prohibition era.”

Such idles all had to come to an end sometime so when it was time to go in the early evening of September 7, the vacationers flooded down to the North Western stations at William’s Bay and Lake Geneva. The train crew knew that the platforms in Pell Lake and Lake Como would be especially crowded as well. Sitting in the small rail yard at William’s Bay (William’s Bay was the end of the line up from Crystal Lake.) were two old, obsolete wooden coaches. It seemed like a good idea to couple these cars to the short train which would meet the mainline passenger train bound to Chicago from central Wisconsin. The meet would be at Crystal Lake.

When the William’s Bay train pulled around the connection to the main line at Crystal Lake and backed up into the siding at Main Street, a switch engine crew, seeing the big crowd of weekenders wanting to get on the train, pulled up a third old wooden coach to be used to handle the over load. The Lake Geneva cars and the one at Crystal Lake were coupled to the rear of main line train #508 from Elroy and Janesville, Wisconsin.

Survivors of the event which would take place in less than two hours reported that the crowd of contented families and others from the lakes were often happily singing the refrains to the popular tunes of the day such as “Bye, Bye, Blackbirds” and, possibly, the hot new hit “Someone to Watch over Me” as that train was soon under way to Chicago.

While train #508 was having cars added to its rear end, train #734, a local train originating in Barrington, was already under way to downtown Chicago with veteran engineer, Louis J. SMITH, at the throttle.

East of Mayfair (east of Jefferson Park, Illinois), the Elroy train on the center track passed the local on the inbound track. The rear flagman of the Elroy train stated later that he knew that the local train “would be closely following his own train” as they neared Chicago. Because some passengers on the Elroy train (#508) desired to detrain at the Clybourn station (a station located at Ashland and Cortland Streets serving a heavily German population), the last station before downtown, the 508 was switched to the local inbound track a few miles before the Clybourn stop where it paused to upload a number of passengers.

Because of the crossover of #508, a stop signal was raised to warn any following trains on the inbound track to stop before nearing Clybourn. Louis Smith, the engineer on the Barrington local, testified later that he saw the stop signal and slowed to about 25 miles per hour preparing to stop. As he reached the signal, he said that it changed to an “approach prepared to stop” aspect. As his train continued to slow, the strong headlight shown from an outbound train pulling out of the Clybourn station. It seems that that train’s engineer did not dim his headlight as he was supposed to. When he cleared the westbound, Smith was horrified to see that his “engine was only about four car lengths behind” the stopped Elroy #508 train. He estimated his speed at about 15 miles per hour. “All I could do” he said “was to brace myself for the shock of the collision,”

As the engine of the #734 train plowed into the stopped train, it pushed the rear car of that train into the second to last car just like an old fashioned telescope is compacted. The last car of the train was pushed into the second to last car like a piston rod into its sleeve crushing and mangling many of the unsuspecting passengers sitting there. The late evening air at the Clybourn station was rent with the sounds of splintering wood, smashing glass and the awful screams of the dying and wounded as well as from those passengers shocked from the effect of the crash. A CHICAGO TRIBUNE reporter wrote that the “torn steel and splintered wood [of the wreck] made the crushed car a tomb of horror.” What happened next? Who came to help? Did anyone die? How many were injured? Who were they?

The Chicago Genealogical Society will be sponsoring a bus tour Notable Chicago Disasters That Effected Your Ancestor’s Lives. This will be a full day Genealogy Bus Tour with tour guide Craig Pfannkuche on Saturday, October 1, from 9:30am – 4:00pm. Register online or print the registration form and mail in. Come learn about the “Horror at Clybourn” Disaster on Labor Day weekend 1926 and many other notable Chicago disasters. Was your ancestor on the train? Did they live on the Northside ninety years ago and run to help the injured?

Please note – the complete article on this disaster including what happened after the crash, who died and who were some of the most seriously injured appeared in the Chicago Genealogical Society Quarterly Spring 2016 issue. The article includes a 1958 picture of the train station and description of the wreck location.


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Horror at Clybourn: Labor Day Weekend 1926
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