The Green Hornet Streetcar Disaster

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This Friday’s (May 23rd) Central Electric Railfans’ Association program features author Craig Allen Cleve, who will discuss his book The Green Hornet Streetcar Disaster.  The following Monday is the 65th anniversary of that tragic accident, where a Chicago Transit Authority PCC car derailed and ran headlong into a gasoline truck.

Cleve’s book is described as follows:

As rush hour came to a close on the evening of May 25, 1950, one of Chicago’s new fast, colorful, streamlined streetcars—known as a Green Hornet—slammed into a gas truck at State Street and 62nd Place. The Hornet’s motorman allegedly failed to heed the warnings of a flagger attempting to route it around a flooded underpass, and the trolley, packed with commuters on their way home, barreled into eight thousand gallons of gasoline. The gas erupted into flames, poured onto State Street, and quickly engulfed the Hornet, shooting flames two hundred and fifty feet into the air. More than half of the passengers escaped the inferno through the rear window, but thirty-three others perished, trapped in front of the streetcar’s back door, which failed to stay open in the ensuing panic. It was Chicago’s worst traffic accident ever—and the worst two-vehicle traffic accident in U.S. history.

Unearthing a forgotten chapter in Chicago lore, The Green Hornet Streetcar Disaster tells the riveting tale of this calamity. Combing through newspaper accounts as well as the Chicago Transit Authority’s official archives, Craig Cleve vividly brings to life this horrific catastrophe. Going beyond the historical record, he tracks down individuals who were present on that fateful day on State and 62nd: eyewitnesses, journalists, even survivors whose lives were forever changed by the accident. Weaving these sources together, Cleve reveals the remarkable combination of natural events, human error, and mechanical failure that led to the disaster, and this moving history recounts them—as well as the conflagration’s human drama—in gripping detail.

You can read more about the accident here.

I realize that discussion of crashes and wrecks is always going to be controversial and not to everyone’s liking.

Ultimately, at least some good did come this horrific accident. Now, emergency exit doors that open outward are installed on transit vehicles all across the country.

In that sense, the 1950 disaster was every bit as important and historic as the 1903 Iroquois Theatre fire, which resulted in numerous safety improvements in theaters– but not in transit vehicles.

However, it seems that not all lessons from 1950 were learned right away. When the CTA began converting some of their PCC streetcars to one-man operation in 1951, their initial design did not include a rear door. It was only when the City of Chicago insisted on a rear door for emergency exit that one was added.

It does not appear as though the 1950 accident had any effect on CTA’s decision to eliminate streetcars and replace them with buses. That change in policy had already been put into effect with the hiring of general manager Walter J. McCarter in 1947.

I commend CERA for courageously scheduling this program. After all, they say that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

-David Sadowski

PS- We will follow up this post with two more this week featuring many classic photos of Chicago’s PCC streetcars in action.

The grand jury announces their findings after holding an inquest into the 1950 streetcar disaster.

The grand jury announces their findings after holding an inquest into the 1950 streetcar disaster.

Several nearby buildings burned to the ground in the aftermath to the accident.

Several nearby buildings burned to the ground in the aftermath to the accident.

CTA 7080 at State and 62nd in June 1950, near the site of the tragic collision between car 7078 and a gasoline truck, which took place on May 25.

CTA 7080 at State and 62nd in June 1950, near the site of the tragic collision between car 7078 and a gasoline truck, which took place on May 25.

16 thoughts on “The Green Hornet Streetcar Disaster

  1. This is ONE meeting I would really like to be present for. I lived closeby and remember it very well. It’s unfortunate that it has to be held on a holiday weekend, when many people, including myself, will be traveling for the weekend.

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  2. I went to the meeting CERA had on ”The Green Hornet Streetcar Disaster” with the author Craig Allen Cleve. Mr. Cleve explained how he obtained information for this book and the attitude of the late 1940s and early 1950s. As a child I heard many stories about this accident. A part of Chicago’s history that wasn’t talked about.

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    • Yes, that was an excellent meeting, wasn’t it? I especially like how the author was able to add a personal dimension to this tragedy, by getting in touch with actual survivors and their friends and relatives.

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  3. Some background from what I have read and heard over the years: The underpass in question (63rd/State) had flooded and streetcars were being rerouted south on State-thru 62nd Pl loop-north on State-west of 59th-south on Wentworth-east on 69th-south on State and reverse. A supervisor was at State/59th watching over this. The switch into 62nd Pl loop, which was a lever switch, had been wedged “open” so all cars would enter the loop. At the time of this occurrence, the water had gone down to passable levels, and a supervisor who had been at 63rd walked up to 59th and told the supervisor there to tell the next southbound to go straight. Now this was in the days before radios, and apparently nobody thought about the switch being blocked open. Next SB came along, the 59th supervisor did as he was told to do and told motorman he could go straight. Motorman did so, making a stop at 61st (where a late friend of mine got off the car), then continued on, expecting switch to be closed for straight move. Being that the street was wet, apparently he did not notice what position the switch was in until he was almost on it. The car swung left and hit the fuel tank (not the cargo tank) of a moving northbound truck. The impact derailed the car, which then swung completely around because of the inertia of the truck pulling the front end north. This is why the pictures do not show the truck the streetcar hit, as it is a short distance further north, while the streetcar is against the east curb. In any event, the truck driver apparently survived, while the impact caused the truck’s fuel tank to puncture and the gasoline to come in thru vents in the front of the streetcar, spraying the motorman and front part of the car.

    As an aside, in the late 70’s a couple of old-timers at the main shops told me that the car that was almost broken in half after derailing at State and Root around the same time was repaired using parts of the frame of the fire victim. This would make sense, as most of the damage was above the floor from the fire, while the safety island at Root St basically bent the frame into a “V” which would have been very difficult to straighten out, but was apparently at least partially done by shackling the ends of the car to two line poles at the shop and pulling the middle back!

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    • Your post awakened a few of the rumors I heard as I did my research for “The Green Hornet Streetcar Disaster”. There was a rumor at the Clark/Devon barn that 7078 was supposed to be the first car to go through the viaduct, but it was unsubstantiated. Yours is the second time I’ve heard it — and from a different source.

      I hope you’ll find a copy of the book and give it a read. You’ll find a few discrepancies in the tale you’ve heard and the one I researched, including:

      1). Eyewitnesses at the Coroner’s Inquest testified that the trolley did not stop at
      61st St.;
      2). The driver of the gas truck did not survive, and likely died on impact. The
      driver’s side of the cab was pulverized;
      3). Both a supervisor and flagger were present from about 2:45 p.m. until the time of
      the accident. It was the supervisor who “plugged” the switch at about 2:30 p.m.
      There is no evidence that either left the scene;
      4). The impact flattened the truck’s “side saddle” gas tank, which exploded. The
      truck jackknifed, and that action caused a gash to be cut in the first tank on the
      semi-trailer. The second tank was undamaged;
      5). So much fuel leaked from the first tank that it flowed over the curb and set fire to
      a tenement on the east side of State St. In all, five buildings were completely
      gutted by flames, two others were damaged, and more than 100 persons were
      displaced.

      Part of the reason I did the leg work for the book was to dispel rumor and create an account of the event with a clear basis in fact. Even so, I continue to learn more about the story as people come forward with information. Thanks for your post.

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  4. The driver of the gasoline truck, Melvin (Mel) Wilson was my paternal grandfather who left behind a wife and four young boys.

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    • Jeff,

      I regret not being able to find more information about your grandfather when I wrote my book about the accident. Obviously, you didn’t know him. But what can you tell us about him?

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      • Like you said, I never met him. My father told me stories and Ive seen many pictures of Mel. After Pearl Harbor Mel enlisted in the Navy and served during WWII. He died on my father’s 8th grade graduation night. My Dad had asked Mel to stay at home that evening to attend his graduation ceremony. Mel knowing he had 4 boys to support decided that he would drive that evening and earn some extra money to buy his boy’s new shoes. They never saw him alive again.

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