The Greater Grand Crossing Frog War

Greater Grand Crossing is one of Chicago's 77 community areas, and the name derives from a huge crossing between two railroads. Sadly, it was the site of one of the first railroad disasters in Illinois, and indeed the United States, when two trains collided within the crossing.

Greater Grand Crossing, Chicago, IL, before a 1912 grade separation. This scene is from 1902. This was the site of an 1853 frog war between the Michigan Southern, and Illinois Central Railroad, which resulted in a crash at the crossing which resulted 21 fatalities.

"In a right of way dispute in 1853, one railroad magnate illegally constructed tracks across another company’s tracks. It resulted in a crash with 18 fatalities, and out of safety concerns thenceforth, trains traveling through made a complete stop where the rival companies’ tracks intersected." (Jacqueline Brennan via Upswell)

This was one of the first frog wars in the United States between railroads vying for rights of way. The Illinois Central Railroad had already been thwarted from its preferred route by the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad. A year before the crash, the IC was planning its route from Chicago to Cairo, IL, and planned to use a route just south of Chicago that the C&RI had acquired first, necessitating them to build closer to the lakefront. At the same time, the Michigan Southern was in a competition with the Michigan Central Railroad as well.

But the creation of Greater Grand Crossing was thanks in large part due to the IC. In this case, an Illinois Central Railroad engineer by the name of Roswell B. Mason secretly, and illegally, constructed tracks for the railroad south from Chicago over area owned by the Michigan Southern Railroad at grade. 

As one could guess, this almost immediately ended in tragedy, when a train crash claimed the lives of 21 individuals, according to the Chicago Tribune

"April 25, 1853. A collision between two trains at a diamond (crossing of two railroads) at Grand Crossing, on what today is Chicago's South Side, kills 21 in what generally is regarded as the nation's first railroad disaster."

The paper printed this account of the crash the following day: 

"The Accident on the Michigan Road.

The express train which left this city at 9 o’clock Monday night, on the Southern Michigan Road, came in collision at the crossing, about eight miles out with an emigrant train coming into Chicago on the Michigan Central Railroad.

The locomotive of the express train struck the sixth car, filled with passengers, and in a moment the locomotive, tender, baggage car and one second class car of the express train, together with three emigrant cars of the Michigan Central train, were a heap of ruins.

On the northerly side of the Central track, one first-class passenger car was thrown upon its side, and groans and cries assailed the ears of those who hastened from the rest of the first-class cars which retained their position. Those in this car were aided to escape from the confusion, and from the danger of suffocation, and it was found that none were dangerously injured, though several received severe bruises.

The scene which presented itself upon the other side of the Central track cannot be fully described, and time will not efface the memory of that terrible and heart-rending spectacle, from the mind of the unwilling beholder.

We saw a heap of ruins, from beneath which shrieked out upon the midnight air, cries for help, mingled with the deeper toned groans of the dying. One by one, those who were able, crawled out from the rubbish, while the uninjured were fully employed in rendering assistance to those unable to extricate themselves.

Each moment the scene became, if possible, more heart-rending. Here sat a poor woman with a broken limb, and her little daughter stood by her side, weeping and begging for assistance. They lay a young German, dead, her sister wringing her hands and crying, “Mein bruder, mein bruder!” Here a child crying, “O, my father,” there a woman wailing for the loss of her infant. A woman dead, her mangled features but partially concealed by a cloak, and at her side only a faithful dog.

Three children, from three to ten years of age, were taken from the water, and placed side by side, at the head of one sat the bereaved father. No one came to claim the other two.

An infant was picked out of the ruins unharmed, but no mother could be found for it.

Those most dangerously injured were conveyed into the unharmed cars, and rendered as comfortable as possible. With some the struggle between life and death seemed uncertain.

In this place was exhibited the kindness of woman’s nature, and the sympathy of many a true heart found expression in timely action.

It was the general opinion that from twelve to fifteen bodies lay beneath the ruins, though it was impossible to ascertain with any accuracy. Four bodies had been taken out.—From fifty to sixty were seriously injured, and some of these cannot recover. The emigrants on the Central road suffered the most.

The cause of this collision, rarely if ever equalled in its fatal and terrible results, is beyond conjecture. The night was as bright as a nearly full moon and the clearest atmosphere could make it. The two roads cross each other at right angles and run for a long distance in a straight line. It seems as if it was impossible for both engineers not to have seen each other trains for the distance of at least half a mile before reaching the crossing. But comment as yet on the cause is out of the question.

The news of the collision, which occurred about 10 o’clock, was brought to the city by the locomotive of the emigrant train. Messengers were dispatched to the city from the Depot, and Drs. Palmer and Clark were soon under way. At the Central Railroad Depot, a locomotive and passenger car were in waiting for them, and by twelve o’clock they had reached the fatal scene.

The physicians proceeded immediately to do all in their power fr the sufferers. At 2½ o’clock the first class passengers from Chicago were transferred to the Central passenger car and brought up to the City. Up to that time no locomotives had come from the city to bear away the wounded and dying who had been crushed in the cars of that road, and yet four hours and a half had elapsed since the collision! and yet those poor creatures in all the agonies of broken limbs and smashed bodies could not be conveyed to any house or bed except on that road.

It must be borne in mind that each of the tracks which concentrate at this crossing, are flanked with water on both sides, so that the getting from one place to another, is at all points difficult, and at some impossible.

The ruins of the cars was in itself a terrible sight. Piled up in the water lay an immense heap of wheels, iron railings, splinters, doors, &c. &c. On one side lay the crushed locomotive, still emitting steam as late as 2 o’clock. Perched on the top of all, at the height of twelve feet above the water’s edge, was the baggage car of the Express train, with one-half perfectly sound, not even the end glass broken. The other end had burst open, and a portion of the trunks had rolled down the heap into the water below.

Beneath one edge of the car appeared the bald head and one hand of an old man. The leg of one and the body of another were also visible beneath the car.

To the east of the ruins burned a bright fire kindled from the splinters, whose light flickered across the quiet forms of the three children, and shone brightly upon the passengers who gathered around it. Another fire was also burning west of the Express train. No one in the first-class passenger car was seriously injured." (Chicago Tribune, April 26, 1853)

You might think such a reckless decision would land either the Illinois Central, Mason, or both parties in significant legal trouble, but that wasn't the case, most likely because the crash did not involve them, but rather the competing Michigan Southern Railroad and the Michigan Central Railroad. The Michigan Central was found to be at fault for the crash, given that it was operating its locomotive with no headlight, "We hold Mr. Jurret, superintendent of the Machine shop at Michigan City, to the public as censurable in not furnishing the Engineer of the Freight and Emigrant Train of the Central Railroad now in question, with proper materials for lights on his Engine, and deem unfit for the station he now occupies." (Chicago Tribune, April 28, 1853)

The Illinois Central would become one of the largest railroads in the US, and remained in business until it was purchased by the Canadian National Railway.

As for Mason? He became Mayor of Chicago in 1869.

After the crash, the rival railroads would stop at the crossing before proceeding. It remained a dangerous crossing until it was grade separated, but the worst accident that occurred at the crossing was the one in 1853. Having trains going in all directions stop in the area proved to be a boon for development, and a neighborhood formed as a result. Originally part of Hyde Park Township and outside of the Chicago city limits, it was incorporated into the city with the township in 1889.

In 1912, a grade crossing separation would split the Grand Crossing apart, making train traffic much more viable through the area, as eleven separate tracks would not have to cross each other.

The same crossing in 1912 after the completion of a grade separation project between the two railroads. Today, the Chicago Skyway would also be visible in this frame. (John Gruber Collection)

The area is still a stop on Metra's Electric District, known as 75th St/Grand Crossing, although the station is relatively small in comparison to other nearby stations on the line, such as 63rd St about 1.5 miles north of GGC. And unless you count the original tracks that are now elevated, which I do not, the entirety of the crossing remains an extremely busy part of Chicago's railroad network to this day.

A 3d Google Maps image which shows the crossing and the Skyway as it looks in modern times. (Google Maps)

Thanks as always for reading!


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