“D” is for Depression of the Tracks

Gazette Article by: Trish Early
Appeared in the Gazette: Spring 1996

Several years ago when the Minnesota Historical Society reopened its exhibit area, a unique approach was taken to interpret its history from “A to Z.” Various objects and topics were depicted by “letters,” and visitors moved through the gallery “alphabetically.” The editorial board of the Winnetka Historical Society Gazette has decided to adopt a similar technique and has added a new feature, “WINNETKA HISTORY: A to Z.”

Upon hearing of the tragedy last fall when a school bus was struck by a train in Fox River Grove, we in Winnetka were again grateful for that prudent decision to separate the grade of the streets and the tracks in our community. Unfortunately, it took another terrible accident to expedite plans that had been talked about for over five decades.

As early as the 1890’s, village leaders Henry Demarest Lloyd and Quincy Lamertine Dowd were advocating grade separation. Not only did they understand the potential threat to citizens, they also recognized the divisive impact of the tracks on village cohesiveness. Village Engineer Frank A. Windes designed a plan in 1906 that was remarkably similar to what was eventually completed. At the same time, local architect William A. Otis was giving lectures to educate the public on the subject.
When the Plan of Winnetka was published in 1921, Edward Bennett, the consulting architect, addressed track depression as his first major topic and found the elimination of grade crossings as “Winnetka’s most serious and urgent problem.” In the previous 11 years, 44 persons had been killed or seriously injured. Bennett also strongly endorsed depression instead of elevation because it reduced train noise and smoke, avoided cutting the village in two, permitted streets to cross the tracks on bridges instead of through dangerous subways, and allowed multiple possibilities for architecturally attractive bridges and approaches. Although both the Caucus and the Village Council supported theses recommendation, no action was taken; and with the onset of the economic depression, the project seemed doomed.

On Halloween night in 1937, two prominent young women returning from the party at Community House were killed instantly when their car was hit at the Pine Street crossing. The accident was caused by an unscheduled train of six dark and empty coaches moving backwards. The loss of Mrs. Janet Getgood (30), wife of the director of Community House and daughter of a Village Trustee, and Mrs. Sibyl Brittain (40), mother of two sons, raised the death toll in Winnetka to 33 in 25 years.
Public outrage now demanded immediate action. Winnetkans wanted a better solution than improved lighting and automatic gates and found an ally in former resident Harold I. Ickes, Secretary of the Interior. When a referendum favored grade separation by 2 to 1, the community was ready.

The federal government pledged a grant of $1.5 million; the railroads added $900,000 and the Village contributed $1 million in order to complete the project. Starting in 1938, 3 ½ miles of dirt (915,000 cubic yards) were excavated to make a “cut” that would be transformed into a modern, streamlined rail traffic way.

The entire undertaking, which included seven bridges and three new stations, was completed on June 15, 1943. The advent of World War II required a special request to the president to release enough steel to finish the work, but the village of Winnetka was finally rid of potential death traps at grade crossings.

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