On July 5, 1903, the town was known officially as Chicago, Ohio, and there was much activity as usual in the large yards of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. About 3:00, the interior of some freight cars were discovered to be on fire near the transfer house at the west end of the yards. It was known that there were two cars of explosives among them, and the yard crew tried to move them to safety.
Before much could be done, the area was ablaze, but the two cars were moved a distance away. Just as the engine was being uncoupled from the cars, one of them blew up with a terrific explosion. The car was blown to pieces and the windows in the round house and machine shop were shattered. Two men assisting in the removal were blown a short distance, but were not seriously injured. The explosion was observed to blow upward rather than outward.
Meanwhile, the transfer house and several tracks of freight cars were ablaze. The fire spread quickly, and there was little or no water available. Eventually the freight transfer house and its contents were destroyed, along with seven tracks of cars loaded with merchandise — a total of 65, plus some empty ones. Some cars were switched out of danger, so that not all was lost.
The explosion and column of smoke was so large that farmers from five and six miles away came to town to see what was happening. When all was said and done, the loss was estimated at between $150,000 and $200,000. Some of the cars contained expensive merchandise such as automobiles, carriages, farm harvesting equipment and household goods. Yet that night at 10:00, carloads of coal and coke still were burning.
In case you missed my earlier column about Willard, it was founded in 1874 as Chicago, but quickly earned the nickname Chicago Junction because the north-south B & O rail line met up with the east-west line at that point, and it was the “junction” where one could take a train to Chicago, Ill.. Over time, there were several instances where a passenger train pulled in and the conductor announced “Chicago” and people bound for Chicago, Ill., would disembark only to find themselves in Chicago, Ohio. I’m told that at least once a party of European immigrants were en route to Chicago, Ill., from New York City because they’d been told that they’d find work there. When the train stopped in Chicago, Ohio, they thought they’d reached their destination — so they got off the train and in some way made themselves understood, found shelter, and became contributing citizens in the community where their descendants still live.
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REMEMBER: My “Just Like Old Times” books are on sale at Colonial Flower and Gift Shoppe at 7 W. Main St. in downtown Norwalk. These preserve my earlier columns in permanent book form.
Henry Timman, an authority on Firelands history, resides in rural Norwalk.