The intersection of State and 63rd looks pretty much the same today as it did on May 25, 1950. This view is probably the last thing that Paul Manning saw.
Manning was a 42-year-old CTA streetcar motorman. At 6:30 p.m. on this spring evening he was piloting his southbound car down the tracks in the center of State Street. There were no expressways yet and the "L" didn’t go past 69th Street, so Manning’s car was crowded with rush hour commuters.
A heavy shower had passed through the area. Just ahead, the Pennsylvania Railroad viaduct was flooded. Since electric streetcars could not operate through standing water, a CTA supervisor was on duty. He was diverting southbound cars into an emergency terminal on the east side of State.
Manning approached the intersection at full speed. He must not have known that the viaduct was impassable. Nor did he see the supervisor running toward him, frantically waving his arms. The car hit the open switch. Instead of continuing south on State, it lurched violently to the left, across the oncoming lanes of traffic.
Mel Wilson was driving a tanker truck northbound on State. The truck was loaded with 7,000 gallons of gasoline from a refinery in Whiting. Wilson had just cleared 63rd Street when turning streetcar slammed into him.
There was a moment of awful silence, then the truck exploded. Flames shot through the streetcar and rolled down State Street, igniting everything in their path. Trees, cars, buildings–in thirty seconds the block had become a vision of hell.
At the rear of the burning streetcar, the conductor forced open the back window and about a dozen people escaped, many of them on fire. They were the lucky ones. The exit doors had jammed. The rest of the passengers were roasted to death.
Fire alarms jangled in all the South Side stations. The department rushed 33 pieces of equipment to the scene. The sound of the explosion and the black smoke rising through the air attracted hundreds of spectators. Squads of police were called out to hold back the crowds.
Firemen worked through the night, extinguishing the stray flames and searching for survivors. The next morning, with the odor of burnt flesh still in the air, city crews went to work dynamiting the shells of seven buildings. Over 150 residents had lost their homes. Thirty-three people were dead, among them motorman Paul Manning and truck driver Mel Wilson.
As a result of the accident, the CTA refitted the rear exit doors on its vehicles, so they could be manually pushed open. The policy of replacing streetcars with busses was accelerated. By 1958 the last trolley was gone from Chicago’s streets.