Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Powerhouse Explosion at the C & NW -- December 3, 1900

The Chicago & Northwestern Depot on Wells Street, early 1900's
Rush hour is always a hassle, but it became REALLY unnerving on this date in 1900 when the explosion of a boiler in the power plant of the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad killed nine people outright and injured a number of others.  The plant at Erie and Kingsbury served the passenger and freight depot for the railroad that was located on Wells Street.  Its four boilers provided electricity for lighting the railroad yards, depot and office buildings, steam for heating the buildings, and compressed air for operating the switches on the tracks. [Western Electrician, December 8, 1900]

The aftermath (Western Electrician)
At 5:00 p.m. on a Monday the terminal was packed with commuters on their way home.  The explosion blew out the south wall of the two-story powerhouse building and propelled the boiler through that wall, the flight of the huge piece of machinery mowing down three section hands at work near the building and continuing on through the parlor car of a departing train headed for Milwaukee.  Five passengers, including two newly married couples returning from their honeymoons, were seriously injured, and one of the women subsequently died.

August C. Beck, returning with his wife, Anna, from their honeymoon, said at the Coroner’s Inquest, “When the train pulled out I was chatting with my wife.  We had gone only a few hundred yards when suddenly there was a terrific report, followed by a roar.  The light went out and there was a show of flying glass, ashes, and cinders.  The side of the car where we were sitting was broken in before I realized what had happened.”  [Chicago Tribune, December 21, 1900] Mrs. Beck was killed in the blast.

It must have been chaos.  When the powerhouse exploded, all of the lights in the terminal went out, plunging 10,000 commuters on their way home into darkness.  Railroad employees worked in the dark, manually throwing switches to keep the trains running since the compressed air lines that serviced that equipment were severed as well.

Clean-up on December 4, 1901
(Western Electrician)
On January 11, 1901 the members of the Coroner’s jury reached a verdict in their consideration of the accident, finding that “the boilers at said powerhouse were not of sufficient capacity to furnish steam for the power required at said powerhouse and we, the jury, are of the opinion that all steam boilers in the City of Chicago should be inspected at least twice in one year, and recommend that the City Council pass an ordinance to that effect.”  [Chicago Tribune, January 12, 1901]

Assistant Engineer John Butterworth, on duty on the night of the explosion, was hospitalized for over a month as a result of the injuries he sustained.  Although he was released before the finding of the Coroner’s jury, he did not testify.  Although he was believed to be the only man who could speak conclusively of what went wrong that night, physicians said that as a result of his ordeal “his mental condition was such that were he to testify he might become permanently insane.” [Tribune, January 12, 1901]

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