The Rockwell Derailment
June 20, 1896


A Chicago Tribune artist sketched the aftermath of the Lake Street derailment near Rockwell Avenue. For a larger view, click here. (Chicago Tribune sketch, from the Bruce Moffat Collection)

After the Metropolitan elevated opened using electric traction in 1895, the South Side and Lake Street lines quickly realized that economies that could be achieved by converting their lines to electricity and moved to do so. By the summer of 1896, the Lake Street had finished converting some of its wooden trailers to motorcars -- the work was done at the firm of Wells & French on Blue Island Avenue in Chicago -- and on the evening of Saturday, June 13, 1896, the steam locomotives made their last runs and were retired.

The transition was decidedly low-key, with no fanfare and little press coverage. The Railroad Gazette reported that, "everything worked smoothly and no trouble was experienced from the change in motive power," though in reality this was not entirely the case. Numerous derailments were reported with the newly-converted motor cars. Then, on the Saturday, June 20, 1896, disaster struck.

On the morning of the 20th, a three-car westbound Lake Street train derailed near Rockwell Street. The derailment sent one car completely off the structure, flipping around and landing on its roof. Another car hung precariously off the structure. A Chicago Daily Tribune article described the accident:


A west-bound motor car of the Lake Street Elevated railroad was derailed just west of Rockwell Street at 9:30 yesterday morning. It bumped along the tracks twenty yards and then plunged thirty feet to the street. Six persons were injured, some perhaps fatally...

The breaking of the coupling saved the other two coaches of the train from being piled on the motor car. The second coach was left nicely balanced on the edge of the elevated structure, and it swayed in the wind to the imminent danger of the wounded and of the rescuing party until it was secured to the track with stout hawsers. Had the accident happened during the morning or evening rush the loss of life would no doubt have been large.

Accident's Cause

High speed on the double curve seems to have been the cause of the derailment. There is a network of tracks opposite the repair shops at Rockwell Street, and the main tracks pass around the signal tower, which occupied the middle of the elevated structure. The tendency is to throw the train outward on entering the curve going west, and again when reaching the straight track.

At the point where the curve ends there is a switch, but it is not believed that had anything to do with throwing the car off the track as its head was in the opposite direction.

All the passengers who were hurt said they had noticed that train was running unusually fast and that it did not slow up at all for the curve.

Warned by the careening of the car and the jolting of the trucks over the cross-ties, the passengers jumped to their feet and made a rush for the doors. One man jumped out of a window. John Apgar got off safely with his little son. All the occupants of the forward coach went down with it.

[The train's motorman, M.G. Johnson] was observed trying to apply the brakes, and then to make an effort to open the door. It was wedged, and he went down with the car.

The car shot diagonally across the sidewalk and turn upside down, crushing in the roof. The rear truck remained attached and broke in the floor, but did not fall through. The motor and forward truck alighted right side up several feet in front of the car body...

The motorman of the Lake Street train was seriously injured, but amazingly no one was killed. Uncertain about the safety of the motorcars (see also the 48th Avenue Met derailment), normal operations resumed on Monday, June 22nd using the road's old steam locomotives. The motorcars were pulled from service until the McGuire trucks they received as part of the electrification -- believed to be the true cause of this disastrous derailment and the several others since the conversion -- could be replaced with Baldwin trucks. The Lake Street Elevated also eased and banked the Rockwell Street curves after the accident and modified the cars' braking apparatus.

By August 6, 1896, enough motorcars had been retrucked to allow resumption of electric service on the Market Stub shuttle. Electric traction on the rest of the line resumed just after midnight on September 20, again without fanfare.




Moffat, Bruce, The "L": The Development of Chicago's Rapid Transit System, 1888-1932 (CERA Bulletin 131), Chicago: Central Electric Railfans' Association, 1995.