“Pop” Whiting and One of the Worst Accidents in Early U.S. Railroad History

By John Hmurovic

Excerpts from One Minute After Sunrise: The Story of the Standard Oil Refinery Fire of 1955 (available for purchase through the Whiting-Robertsdale Historical Society)

The city of Whiting was named after Herbert Lloyd “Pop” Whiting, a railroad conductor. Early in his career, Whiting was involved in one of the worst railroad accidents in American history up to that point. He was the conductor on board a Michigan Southern train that left Chicago on the night of April 25, 1853. Eight miles from the future city of Whiting, two railroad tracks crossed, almost at a right angle. The area later became known as Grand Crossing. It is near 75th Street and South Chicago Avenue, on Chicago's south side. Then, it was a rural, unsettled area. One track belonged to the Michigan Southern. The other track belonged to its bitter rival, the Michigan Central. 

On that evening, the Michigan Southern left Chicago at nine p.m. and was eastbound. It was dark. The moon was not yet up, but the night was clear. The train made a stop not long after leaving the heart of the city. It stopped at an intersection where the Rock Island Railroad came into Chicago. Several passengers on the Rock Island needed to transfer onto the Michigan Southern, but the Rock Island was running late, and the Michigan Southern had to wait. The delay put the Michigan Southern a half-hour behind schedule. 

Meanwhile, a westbound Michigan Central train was nearing the end of its long journey. It was coming toward the city of Chicago. It was also late. It should have been there more than seven hours earlier. 

When the Michigan Central stopped in Michigan City, Thomas Rackham, its engineer, noticed that his headlamp was out. Fastened in front of the train's smokestack, a headlamp helped engineers see better at night. As importantly, on a clear night with no obstructions, engineers on other trains could see a headlamp from ten miles away. Mr. Jurat was the superintendent of the machine shop in Michigan City. Rackham told him about thedefective light. But, according to Rackham, Jurat said nothing and did nothing. Already far behind schedule, Rackham was impatient. He decided to move on into the night without a functioning headlamp on his train.

Photo Caption: Grand Crossing in Chicago around 1900, site of a major train accident in 1853.

Photo Caption: Grand Crossing in Chicago around 1900, site of a major train accident in 1853.

Around ten p.m., Rackham's Michigan Central train approached the spot where the two tracks crossed. It was going about twelve miles an hour. A half-mile from the crossing Rackham saw a light from the eastbound Michigan Southern train. He knew it was close. Edward Davis, however, the engineer on the Southern, did not see the Michigan Central train. The area was open prairie with few obstructions. There was a slight fog around theswampy spot where the tracks met. Even so, Davis would probably have seen the Michigan Central if it had a working headlamp.

Rackham figured he had the right-of-way. So even though he saw the oncoming train, he crossed the Michigan Southern track. Rackham assumed the eastbound train would stop. He slowed his train down to about four miles per hour. Engineer Davis, on board the Michigan Southern, stood on the footboard of his wood-burning engine, his head sticking out the window and his hand grasping the throttle. Less than a quarter-mile from the crossing he saw sparks ahead. In this rural area, he knew the only thing it could be was sparks from another train. Davis blew the whistle, a signal for the brakeman to apply the brakes. At that moment, with his train only ten to fifteen seconds away from the crossing, the headlamp from his own train allowed Davis to see the Michigan Central for the first time. It was directly ahead of him. 

The Michigan Southern, going twenty to twenty-five miles an hour, rammed into the side of the other train. The Michigan Central was twenty-four cars long, and most carried freight. But the engine of the Michigan Southern crashed straight into passenger cars. Eighty people were on board those cars. They were called emigrant cars, one of the cheapest and most uncomfortable ways to travel long distances in the 1850s. The only thing inside most wood-framed emigrant cars was a wooden bench. Many of those on board this crowded Michigan Central train were Germans, heading to Chicago to start a new life in America.

The Michigan Southern split the emigrant car in half. Splintered wood and bodies flew through the air, some landing in the muddy water alongside the track. Herbert Whiting was standing near the back of a passenger car on the Southern when his train hit the Central’s. The impact of the crash injured Whiting and damaged the car he was in, but he got off the train by going through the adjacent baggage car. 

What Whiting saw when he emerged from the train was horrific. J.N. Flesh, a Norwegian passenger on Whiting’s train, was hanging by his foot from the wreckage. The collision threw George Miner and Allen Richmond into the water near the track. They were both from Ohio and were both passengers on Whiting’s train. 

But the passengers on the Southern did not bear the brunt of the collision. For the occupants of the Central’s emigrant car, the crash was deadly. People on board that car were “maimed and mangled, dead and dying,” according to a report in the Chicago Democratic Press.  In that remote area, “Shrieks...startled the midnight air," the reporter wrote. "Groans...were but a faint echo of the physical and mental anguish which the unfortunate sufferers endured.”  

Whiting did what he could to help the injured, but after about twenty minutes he realized he needed to get help. He took off on foot toward the junction with the Rock Island line. He walked the same track his train was on just before the crash. It was a two-and-a-half-mile walk in the dark of night.   

When Whiting arrived at the junction, he told the people there about the accident. It was the first news that anyone not on board the two trains had heard about the deadly collision. He, and others, then returned to the accident scene on a locomotive.

A coroner’s inquest convened the day after the crash. Michigan Central Engineer Thomas Rackham did not escape criticism for operating a train without a headlamp. He also admitted, in hindsight, to two errors. He should not have slowed down to four miles per hour. If he had maintained his speed, his train might have cleared the track before the Michigan Southern arrived. And, knowing his headlamp was out, he should have stopped to give the Michigan Southern the right of way. 

Engineer Edward Davis of the Michigan Southern also received criticism. Based on general practices, trains coming into Chicago had the right of way over trains leaving the city. Davis should have stopped. In his defense, Davis said he did not see the Central until it was too late. The coroner's jury charged Davis and Rackham with gross carelessness. Whiting and the conductor on the Central received the same charge.

But the bulk of the criticism soon shifted to the two railroads. Why had they built their tracks in such a manner? The answer went back to the race between the Michigan Southern and the Michigan Central to be the first railroad to reach Chicago from the east. 

The Michigan Southern was the first to lay its track in the Grand Crossing area, the scene of the collision. But the Michigan Central claimed it had priority rights over that ground. It based its argument on the fact that it was first to receive approval from the state of Illinois to operate in the state. The Michigan Central could have built a bridge over the Southern’s track. But to do so would have cost more money and delayed them in their effort to beat the Southern in their race to become the first railroad to reach Chicago from the east.  

Officials from the Southern were not happy with the decision of the Central. Knowing this, the Central sent armed guards to the site. They were afraid the Southern would send men in the dark of night to dismantle the Central’s track. Less than a year later, the guards were gone, and neither railroad thought it was important to send a watchman to the intersection to prevent an accident. Twenty-one people died in the collision of the Michigan Southern and Michigan Central. Sixty were injured.


Excerpts from One Minute After Sunrise: The Story of the Standard Oil Refinery Fire of 1955
Copyright © 2017 John Hmurovic