When writer Chuck Spinner introduced his new book Saturday afternoon at Anderson’s Bookshop, the booksigning seemed like a family reunion. From Paul Hinterlong to Kathy Rechenmacher Thornton to Jim Althoetmar, family connections were woven throughout the audience of roughly 50 individuals, many who could say they’d come to hear their relative tell the story of the 1946 Loomis Street tragic train accident, still considered the worst tragedy in Burlington Railroad history.
“The Tragedy at Loomis Street Crossing” chronicles the day 45 people riding on two Burlington trains, the Advance Flyer and the Exposition Flyer, were killed when the trains crashed just as they neared the train station. After significant research that determined no one from Naperville had died in the crash that day, Spinner interviewed survivors to shed light on a little-remembered event in Naperville history.
Spinner has a great gift of gab for storytelling, holding the audience’s attention without Power Point images or any props.
Spinner told how he’d researched his work, giving accounts of interviews with dozens of Naperville residents who had arrived at the accident scene on April 25, 1946, just south of Kroehler Furniture Manufacturing near the train station.
During his presentation, Spinner talked about his conversation several years ago with Calista Wehrli, a Naperville woman and Marine Reservist who had returned home after three years of serving her country in 1946. Wehrli, who died in 2010 at the age of 85, had recalled using her nursing and rescue skills for more than eight hours at the site of the tragedy.
Spinner noted that many phone calls ended up being too late to get eyewitness reports, as many older folks already had died before 2009 when he began his research. The 1946 date created an urgency to locate individuals—Kroehler employees, neighbors, North Central College students, first responders, priests and uninjured passengers—who might be able to piece the story together of the heroic efforts that occurred that fateful day.
Naperville resident Dick Locher, who was 16 and living in Iowa in 1946, remembered the newspaper headlines the day the tragedy happened. And according to Spinner, at first the Naperville Sun reported the number of fatalities incorrectly at 100 dead.
Mayor George Pradel stood in the long line of individuals who came to have their books signed. Mayor Pradel asked Spinner to sign his book for “The City of Naperville,” as he plans to put the book in the waiting area near his office.
“I was nine when it happened,” said the mayor to Spinner, as he reminisced about watching the devastation and the rescue from atop a wood pile in the distance.
Mayor Pradel said he planned to talk to Century Walk about creating some type of commemorative marker at the site.
Many photos in the book help tell the story. Photo credits are given to Paul Hinterlong’s collection, North Central College Archives and the Chicago Tribune.
Spinner will be a featured presenter at the Great Midwest Train Show on Sunday at the DuPage County Fairgrounds, Manchester Road near County Farm Road in Wheaton. Spinner is scheduled to begin his booktalk at 11:30AM, Sun., June 3. He said he’ll have a table and likely will be around most of the afternoon. Admission to the train show is $7. Children 12 and under are free. INFO: www.greatmidwesttrainshow.com.
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