The Green Hornet Streetcar Disaster

81+DHtI-gpL

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.