THE TROLLEY OF DEATH
THE GREEN HORNET TROLLEY DISASTER

The fates of 33 people were tragically changed in Chicago in 1950 because of a rainstorm. On the night of May 24, a sudden and torrential downpour flooded the 63rd Street underpass at State Street, making the road impassable for the electric CTA trolley cars. No one knew what horrific events would follow this rainstorm or how simply missing a signal would send the occupants of a Green Hornet trolley along a path of no return.

During the first half of the Twentieth Century, electric streetcars were a familiar sight on Chicago streets. Trolleys had first appeared in the Windy City, pulled by horses, back in 1859. By the 1890ís, electricity had replaced the horses and the cars began to travel along steel rails that had been fitted into the city streets. The system was so popular that during World War I, Chicago operated the largest streetcar operation in the country.

And while many riders relied on the trolleys to get them to and from work each day and to allow them to travel throughout the city, the vehicles did have their drawbacks. The most obvious problem was that they lacked the ability to maneuver around accidents and flooded areas, causing the cars to have to be diverted to alternate routes. For this reason, among others, trolleys were eventually replaced by buses.


The fiery aftermath of the 1950 Green Hornet accident

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The fact that the trolleys were unable to change routes with ease would later lead to the "worst loss of life involving a motor vehicle in America".

On the morning of Thursday, May 25, the low-lying underpass at State Street remained flooded with rain water from the storm and so throughout that day, a flagman detoured southbound cars to a turnaround track on the east side of State Street, making 63rd Street the temporary end of the line. By rush hour, the area remained closed but this fact was apparently missed by the driver of the Green Hornet, Paul Manning. The trolley that he was driving was known for being one of the newest and sleekest vehicles on the CTA line and it was in perfect working order. Only a terrible mistake could be blamed for what happened that night.

Manning was driving the Green Hornet at a speed that was estimated to be about 35 m.p.h., which was considered to be dangerously fast for the wet conditions. The CTA flagman was still in place at 62nd, one block north of the turnaround, and when he saw Manningís trolley come into view, he frantically began signaling the driver to slow down. Instead of slowing though, the streetcar continued speeding along the street. The flagman continued to wave and attempted to warn the driver that a switch in the track was open for a turn that would put the Green Hornet directly into the path of oncoming northbound travel.

In the opposite lane, heading north, a semi-trailer truck that was driven by Mel Wilson was also quickly approaching the viaduct. The semi-truck happened to be hauling 8,000 gallons of gasoline that was destined for south side filling stations.

How Manning failed to see the flagmanís signal is unknown, but we do know that he was unaware of the closed underpass and also unaware of the open switch that was being used to bypass the trolleys. Itís likely that he simply thought that the car would clip right along on the route that he normally took. However, when the trolley hit the open switch track, it violently swung to the left, throwing the passengers aboard to the floor. Manning was last seen throwing up his hands and screaming in terror as the streetcar hurled through the intersection and rammed into the tanker truck. The impact ripped open the tankerís steel skin, creating a shower of sparks that immediately ignited the gasoline that was now flooding onto the street. The two vehicles erupted into a single fireball and incinerated the trolley.

At the time of the accident, every seat on the Green Hornet had been filled. The aisles had been filled with the people who had been jolted by the sudden turn and they suddenly felt the tremendous heat as the fire swept through the car. In the terror and confusion that followed, the trapped and charred victims pushed against the side doors, but they refused to open. The windows were covered with steel bars, making them useless as an escape route. Somehow, 30 people managed to crawl away from the scene, leaving 33 others behind to die. Those fortunate few who survived were all treated for severe burns at Provident Hospital.

Meanwhile, the explosion shook the entire neighborhood and the flames soared two and three stories high. The burning gasoline managed to engulf seven buildings on State Street and the fire was so hot that it twisted metal, fused windows and melted sections of asphalt on the street. The walls of several of the buildings collapsed, although the occupants managed to escape. Drivers who had been lined up in traffic were able to leave unharmed as well.

More than 30 fire companies were called to the scene and it took more than two hours to get the worst of the fire under control. It would be a long time before a sense of calm could be restored to the area though and the smell of scorched flesh hung in the air long after the debris was cleared away. According to newspaper reports, as many as 20,000 people lined the streets, craning to catch a glimpse of the fire, the destroyed vehicles and the blackened bodies that were taken away to the morgue.

Itís likely that some of the emergency workers who had to deal with the carnage would have gladly traded places with the curiosity-seekers. When they forced open the rear doors of the trolley, they were met with a ghastly scene. "In some cases we found only the skulls and parts of limbs," Fire Marshall Albert Peterson later recalled. "We had to remove all of them and make a temporary morgue on the sidewalk."

A number of the passengers escaped the trolley thanks to a 14 year-old girl who had thought quickly enough to pull down a red safety knob that opened the center doors. However, the rear doors had no such device and were in fact designed to be entry doors only, not opening from the inside. This created a bottleneck when the panicked passengers tried to get out of them. When the firefighters had opened the doors, they found a mass of bodies that had been literally fused together by the heat.

In the investigation that followed, it was found that the Green Hornet had been in perfect working order, as had the gasoline truck. Mel Wilson, the driver of the truck, had also been burned to death in the accident. Most pointed fingers of blame at Paul Manning, who had been involved in 10 minor accidents during his career, but the real problems were the design flaws in the trolley itself. These included the lack of safety pulls (now standard equipment on buses and elevated lines), the steel bars that blocked an emergency escape through the windows and doors that would not open from either side. It took the senseless slaughter of 33 innocent victims to learn what should have been a simple lesson from the start.

In the years that followed the Green Hornet crash, trolleys slowly began to disappear from Chicago streets and were replaced by buses. The final run of a Green Hornet trolley took place on June 21, 1958 and another chapter closed in Chicagoís history of disasters.

© Copyright 2003 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.