SideLines: History feature sparks forgotten memory

In the “Looking Back” section of last week’s MidWeek, I came across an item from 50 years ago about a Chicago & North Western train derailment outside of Rochelle. It said more than 100 new automobiles were ruined and 37 freight cars were wrecked.

I remember that wreck because my father took me to see it. I was just a little kid at the time. I remember parking along a country road a couple of miles away, in a long line of other parked cars. We weren’t allowed to get any closer. We all got out and stood by our vehicles. I don’t know why we didn’t stay in our cars where it was warm, because we couldn’t see much better outside.

The train seemed to stretch for miles. Maybe it did. Most of the multicolored cars were lying on their sides, off the track. I couldn’t get over how many there were. What I remember the most were the orange flames – they were almost pretty, in a bad sort of way – and the lazy way they hung over the wreckage, burning ever so slowly. I also remember the billowing black smoke that you could see for miles.

It was very cold that day. The cold kind of soaked into you and just stayed there. Since it was the middle of January, there was snow on the ground, which made all the colors on that overcast day darker and even more vivid, at least to my young eyes.

The strange thing was, no one seemed to be in any hurry to do anything about the fire or the wreck. All the firemen I could see were just standing around, watching the fire like the rest of us. I was too young to realize there was really nothing they could do.

My father spoke to some of the other men standing by their cars, but I didn’t say anything to anyone. I was just mesmerized. I had never seen anything like it, and I probably haven’t since. When you think about it, how many actual train wrecks does a person see?

It was one of those little moments shared with my father that, even though it didn’t affect either one of us, left an impact on both of us. Something unusual had happened and we were there to witness it together. In a strange way, I felt a bond with everyone who was out there for the same reason, even though I didn’t know any of them and wouldn’t have recognized them later.

I had forgotten all about that until I read that little item in Looking Back. I’m surprised I can remember as much as I can.

I don’t know how many times someone has told me how much they enjoy that page, especially when they read about someone or something they remember. I get a kick out of it myself. From a journalism point of view, I can’t believe the way some of the stories were worded back then, with long-winded, backward phrases we would never consider today.

I am also amazed at what passed for news a century ago. Like when it was reported 125 years ago that 10 people owned typewriters in Sycamore, a big increase from the year before when there were three.

We have joked about how we could probably eliminate most of the stories in the paper and people would never notice as long as we include Looking Back and Town Crier. But for my sake, as I  much as I enjoy both sections, I hope it never comes to that.

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