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 last year.
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 to Chicago.
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 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 Tribune’s 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 the 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 publishing histories.
Recalling this decade’s 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 hasn’t changed too much in the 116 years since the Malta disaster, except for the technology we enjoy today.