While in Malta last weekend at the annual Lions pancake
breakfast, somehow the topic of the 1901 train wreck came up.
The first time I had heard about it was nearly 10 years ago while
talking with Ivan Prall, the Malta historian who passed away
Someone mentioned last week that Town Hall, now the Malta
Historical Society building, was pressed into service as a morgue,
where bodies were brought from the wreckage on the Chicago and
Northwestern line. In fact the bloodstains could be seen years
later, until the floor was refinished. I confirmed that in a
phone call with Carole Woodin, whose husband, David, is president
of the society.
The collision between a passenger train going about 60
mph and a freight train occurred at 5 a.m. Dec. 29, 1901, three
blocks east of the depot. A switch had been left open, allowing
the freight to come back onto the main line directly in the path
of the eastbound passenger train, which was on a run from Omaha
The passenger engine was torn to pieces, according to newspaper
articles, and the main part was derailed, turned around to face
the west, and laid on its side.
The cries of the injured passengers, the crash of
broken wood and iron and the screech of escaping steam, mingled
in the most unearthly sounds, combined to tell of one of the
worst wrecks which the Northwestern has ever known, the
DeKalb Evening Chronicle reported.
But amazingly, only four people died, among the 45 or 50
people on the passenger train and the crew on the freight. Many
of the injuries and deaths were
This newspaper photo of the wrecked passenger train
engine and other debris showed the intensity of the collision,
tearing the locomotive apart and leaving it upended. (Photo courtesy
of the Malta Historical Society)The Chicago Tribune displayed the crash story prominently
on the front page with a heading and six subheads (decks) under
caused by escaping steam from the engines, which scalded several
people trapped in the sleeper car.
The newspapers reported that Malta residents hurried to
the scene to help rescue the injured and the Malta village fire
department responded, but all the cars except one of the passenger
train were destroyed, plus several freight cars containing grain.
The grain burned so brightly that rescuers were able to locate
and aid the injured despite it being before dawn. The depot and
hotel were turned into makeshift hospitals.
Using the telegraph, the Malta station agent sent out a
call for help. Trains with physicians from the DeKalb area, Rochelle
and one from Creston rushed to the scene, working with doctors
from Malta. Malta residents opened their homes to the passengers
and the injured, according to newspaper reports. The next morning,
a relief train, made up of several cabooses to transport the
injured, arrived from Chicago with more doctors and nurses and
took the victims to three Chicago hospitals.
The Chicago Tribunes front page story not only had
a headline, but six subheads that read, from top to bottom: Trains
crash; many scalded; four are dead ... Steam fills sleepers after
Atlantic Express strikes freight engine at Malta, Ill. ... Twenty-six
injured ... Few escape unhurt from the Northwestern cars which
were coming from Omaha to Chicago ... Due to an open switch ...
Passengers awakened in early morning to be tortured in hot vapor
pouring from two locomotives ... Quick aid to the sufferers.
The articles in the DeKalb and the Chicago papers were
very detailed and contained firsthand accounts from people at
the scene. I wonder how they did such a thorough job of reporting
with no cellphones, no internet and nothing but manual typewriters
to write their stories. The Chronicle reported that 12,000 people
showed up in the days afterward to view the wreckage. The story
ended with Kodack (sic) fiends were omnipresent and pictures
of the wreck give some idea of its magnitude.
I wish I could have found the Malta papers to compare
their coverage. At that time there were two local weeklies
the Malta Mail (published from 1877 to 1924) and the Malta Record
(1886 to 1917). That had to be the biggest news story in their
Recalling this decades biggest stories, tragedies
still get the most attention: notably the shooting of five NIU
students and the Fairdale-area tornado. It seems on-the-spot
news reporting hasnt changed too much in the 116 years
since the Malta disaster, except for the technology we enjoy