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Barry Schrader


I currently write a column each Tuesday for the DeKalb Daily Chronicle. The column will also appear on this website each week and be added to the archives.

The Articles started December 2007.


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Recalling '61 train wreck in DeKalb

By Barry Schrader Senior Columnist...................May 1, 2012

The closure of the intersection of Lincoln Highway and Fourth Street in DeKalb this week for railroad track repairs may remind a few longtime residents of the spectacular train derailment in August 1961 that caused chaos in downtown DeKalb during the noon hour on a Friday.

David Hegberg brought the accident to my attention when he emailed me a photo of the wreck that had appeared in the Daily Chronicle the same afternoon. The Daily Chronicle photographer had apparently gotten on top of the DeKalb Trust & Savings Bank across the street and recorded the scene as crowds began to gather. The timing was fortuitous for the Chronicle, as the paper published in the afternoon then and could put the accident on the front page with a detailed story, photo and banner headline that read “DEKALB HAS TRAIN WRECK.”

Taken from atop a bank at Fourth Street and Lincoln Highway in DeKalb, this photo shows the chaos that resulted from a train derailment Aug. 4, 1961. (Daily Chronicle file photo)

The cause of the accident was believed to be a brake rigging on one of the rail cars that broke loose and began dragging along the trackbed, eventually causing the derailment of six refrigerator cars.

The Chronicle reporter got a statement from one of the survivors of the crash, the driver of the third vehicle in line at the intersection, who said: “Out of the corner of my eye I saw one of the (rail) cars moving out of line. I didn’t think. I just jumped out of my car and fell on the pavement. Then I got up and ran for two blocks before I stopped and looked back.” He happened to be a Daily Chronicle advertising representative named Ron Hollingshead. He suffered only a minor cut on his leg when he fell.

Two other people received minor injuries and were taken to the hospital. Anthony Heppner was sitting on a park bench near the World War II tank and was thrown to the ground when the tank was shoved off its base into the street. A second man, Robert Jones, also was taken to the hospital with unspecified injuries.

Probably the luckiest family was that of Mrs. Virgil Nehring. The family was in the first vehicle at the crossing. One of the overturned box cars crashed into the right front end of the car and cracked the windshield. She and her children escaped serious injury but were said to be in shock from their brush with death.

It just happened recently that I met the assistant engineer of the freight train, Joe Pinion, at the Town Square restaurant in Sycamore, and he vividly recalled that day in August. In 1961, he was just beginning his 40-year career with the railroad, riding in the cab with engineer William Day.

He said a friend, Bill Mason, was a banker at DeKalb Trust & Savings and had his desk near the front window. The derailed cars skidded within 15 to 20 feet of the bank so Mason had a front row seat to the disaster. But no one was killed or seriously injured, so it was a miracle that only property damage occurred.

Pinion recalled several other train accidents during his career, especially a spectacular one in Cortland in the early 1970s when a coal train derailed and demolished buildings along the tracks.

He was the engineer of a train waiting on the siding there at the time and witnessed the damage that was caused. But that’s another story.

By the way, DeKalb city fathers later decided it would be safer for that memorial tank to be moved elsewhere, and it now sets in the park at Lincoln Highway and North First Street, more than a block away from the railroad tracks.

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Barry Schrader
PO Box 851
DeKalb, Ill 60115