The enormous concentrations of wealth and power stemming from railroading led to political corruption, as railroad entrepreneurs bribed legislators and judges . . . Paul Stephen Dempsey, “The Rise and Fall of the Interstate Commerce Commission,” Marquette Law Review, Vol. 95 2012.
My father, James Dale Clutter, invented a warning device that was designed to save the lives of children. He worked as an electrician for the railroad. He started his career working for the Wabash Railway headquartered in Decatur, Illinois . . . Dad had witnessed the aftermath of many fatal accidents during his career working for the railroad. The ones that involved children affected him most of all, having five small children of his own. Whenever the railroad had a train derailment or collision with a vehicle, like a school bus, Dad was called to the scene. There was usually some electrical system to repair.
. . . Dad came up with an idea for an invention. It was a simple device, a transponder that could be installed on locomotives that would emit a radio signal whenever the engineer sounded the horn. A receiver installed in dashboards of any vehicle, but especially school buses and semi-trucks, would sound an alarm warning the driver of an approaching train.
Dad would tell us the story about how political corruption worked. He witnessed it for himself. He was playing poker one night with railroad executives. A Decatur state legislator joined their card game. The politician was there to collect an envelope full of cash, a campaign contribution. This was before campaign finance laws required strict reporting requirements and limitations on how much individuals and corporations could contribute to politicians.
One of the most heart-wrenching experiences I had serving on the Springfield, Illinois city council was hearing the pleas of Deanna Conrad whose three-year-old daughter Nicola Maria Bishop was killed in a car-train collision on the north side of town on October 11, 1988, a week after the birth of my second son Kristofer.
It happened just a few blocks away from where my father grew up. A Norfolk and Western freight train smashed into the northbound car at the crossing on Albany Street, killing three people that day. Deanna also lost her sister Ellen Stroh, 29, and her sister’s husband James Stroh Jr., 29, who was driving the car. Their 2-year-old child Deran survived the blunt force of the locomotive. Three-year-old Nicola died in her mother’s arms.
Wearing a neck brace and hobbling, the mother pleaded for the city council to do something.
The emotions of what my father went through in his battle against the railroad welled within me. I tried hard to hold back tears. It was raw and emotional testimony, as she described how her precious baby died that day.
Family and friends gathered around the grief-stricken mother, as she pleaded for the council to rescind a ban on train whistles that had been passed weeks earlier. She said they didn’t see the warning lights. The sun was shining brightly that day, making it hard to see the flashing red lights. She said the railroad crossing needed to be equipped with crossing gates.
“We don’t need no more babies in caskets,” she cried.
A new ordinance that night that was placed on emergency passage that directed the City of Springfield to petition the ICC to require the railroad to install crossing gates. Our vote was unanimous on both ordinances.
The only two people who spoke to oppose the ordinance was the lobbyist for the railroad, and the state agency representative from the Illinois Commerce Commission, the arm of government charged with regulating railroad safety.
The two men claimed that state and federal law prevented the city council from requiring a greater degree of safety than that required by the ICC. Even though the crossing was inherently dangerous due to its proximity to a row of houses to the right that blocked the driver’s view of westbound trains, the ICC official agreed with the railroad’s position and disregarded the city council ordinance that urged them to order the railroad to install crossing gates. The warning device at the crossing where this accident happened was left the way it was.
If Robert F. Kennedy had lived beyond his victory speech in California, those killed at the Albany Street crossing may not have died that day.
By happenstance, on April 23, 1968, my Dad spent a day traveling with Robert F. Kennedy during the Indiana primary on a whistle-stop campaign on the old Wabash Cannonball Express. As a passenger train, the Cannonball Express made its maiden run in 1949, from St. Louis through Taylorville on its way to Detroit.
Standing on the back of the platform, Kennedy would end each speech paraphrasing a line from George Bernard Shaw, the famous Irish play-write: “Some men see things as they are and say, ‘Why?’ I dream things that never were and say, ‘Why not?’”
Between the whistle stops, idle time, with the wheels of the train clicking and clacking beneath their feet, my Dad sat with Bobby Kennedy in his personal parlor car. They talked about their families. I’m sure Dad made a great impression on Kennedy. Handsome and confident, Dad was smooth and glib. He wasted no time pitching his invention to Kennedy. The power of Dad’s idea persuaded Kennedy. RFK thought Dad’s idea was brilliant and pledged his support. After finishing their conversation, the two men shook hands. Kennedy made a promise to promote Dad’s invention.
On June 7, 1968, the Decatur Review ran a front-page story about a grieving Ethel Kennedy next to an article with a picture of my Dad, Jim Clutter. The headline read “No Funds.” “Although James D. Clutter had been working without success for three years to gain acceptance of a device to warn vehicles of approaching trains at crossings, he still has not given up.” He told the reporter about his meeting with Bobby Kennedy. How Kennedy vowed to make the dream of his invention into reality, using the resources of the federal government. Now that Kennedy was dead, Dad was back to where he started. An electrical genius, dad was without the means or money to pursue his dream.
It was Victor Hugo who said, “No army can stop an idea whose time had come.” But for Dad’s idea, it was the company he worked for, the railroad, that stood in the way.
[Years later Dad wrote a letter to the Editor] “Ten years ago I sat in then Governor Kerner’s office in Springfield with various state department heads and representatives. I was attempting to get state help in evaluating and requiring the railroads to adopt a train warning system that I had developed.” Dad pointed out “roughly 2,000 people a year are killed at grade crossings that were struck by trains since that meeting. A lousy $5 receiver could have prevented those deaths.”
He asked, “Why wasn’t the system even given a study? The reason is simple. The railroads through favor-seeking and outright corrupt politicians, have killed it just as surely as they will continue to kill people at their grade crossings.”
The meeting at Governor Kerner’s office included upper management of the Interstate Commerce Commission, the ICC that regulated the railroads. After the meeting, railroad executives were tipped off that a guy named Clutter was causing trouble for them in Springfield. By the time Dad wrote this op/ed, former Gov. Otto Kerner had been convicted of political corruption and served time in federal prison.
On May 22, 1991, just as students at Lanphier High School were nearing the end of another school year, class let out with three teenage boys carpooling home when they were hit by a west-bound Norkolk & Western freight train as they entered the Albany Street railroad crossing. Two boys were crushed and killed on impact, Jamie Cundiff and Patrick Roy. The driver, Brandon Woodcox, survived his injuries. It was the same time of day, approximately 3:45 p.m. as the previous accident at the same crossing, traveling the same direction that killed 3-year-old Nicola Bishop and her uncle and aunt. The music from the car stereo prevented the boys from hearing the train sounding its horn, and bright sunlight, as before, dimmed the visibility of the flashing red lights. A house to the right of the crossing made it impossible to see down the tracks as the car approached the crossing . . . Public outrage over the fact that the railroad failed to install crossing gates after the last accident and ignored the city council’s request to install crossing gates, embarrassed the railroad to finally install crossing gates.