Kane County History: When Cars Came To Elgin, Tragedy Soon Followed

Kane County History: When Cars Came To Elgin, Tragedy Soon Followed

  • Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series on Kane County’s amazing history. Today’s article was written and submitted by Elgin Museum Educator Rebecca Miller.

Elgin’s first automobile was owned by Mr. and Mrs. George B. Richardson, superintendent at the David C. Cook Publishing Company. Purchased in 1900, it was a Waverly Electric Road Wagon powered by a 40-cell battery. The car and battery weighed 1,500 pounds and could reach speeds of 3 mph to16 mph, going 45 miles on a single charge.

In 1900, George B. Richardson, superintendent at the David C. Cook Publishing Company, became the first Elginite to own a motor vehicle. His Waverly Road Wagon was battery powered and had a top speed of 16 mph.

While it was the first, others soon followed, and Elgin had its first car dealership by 1902. In 1904, the city enacted its first speed limits and by 1906, more than 100 automobiles were owned by residents.

With these developments, another sad milestone was soon to follow. In 1908, Elgin saw its first traffic fatality.

A Visitor from Chicago

Marietta Roe of Chicago, victim of Elgin’s first fatal traffic accident on Aug. 18, 1908.

Marietta Roe of Chicago arrived in Elgin on Aug. 18, 1908, to house sit for her daughter while she vacationed. Roe was well-known in Elgin, having been a member of the social scene for several years through her daughter.

Her daughter, Etta, and son-in-law, W.L. Black, publisher of the Elgin Daily News, lived at 770 Highland Ave in the ornate home previously known as the McClure Mansion. Roe and her son, Clifford Roe, assistant state’s attorney, had just arrived on the 7 o’clock train from Chicago and had walked to the corner of West Chicago and North State streets to wait for the streetcar serving Highland Avenue.

As the streetcar approached, Clifford Roe turned to pick up a suitcase and valise while his mother stepped off the curb and into the street to board the streetcar. Roe’s eagerness put her right in the path of an oncoming automobile driven by Nellie Chappell.

The Tragic Accident

Unable to avoid each other, the automobile passed entirely over Roe’s body. One wheel traveled over her stomach, causing her to vomit blood. She suffered several broken bones in her arm as well as a ruptured blood vessel in her brain and fracture above her left eye.

Roe was treated at Sherman hospital by Dr. Ora Pelton, but she never regained consciousness before dying on Aug. 21, 1908.

Witnesses, including Clifford Roe, agreed that Chappell was driving at a safe speed and was not at fault. The accident was, they said, as unavoidable as it was unfortunate. Chappell’s car swerved to avoid a collision, but Roe became confused and turned directly back into the automobile’s path.

Newspapers speculated that Roe’s advanced age, 69, may have led to her confusion.

Mrs. Chapell Grieves

Nellie Mann Chappell, driver of the automobile involved in Elgin’s first fatal traffic accident.

Chappell was deeply affected by the accident herself. She was acquainted with Roe from her previous visits to Elgin and considered her a friend.

Immediately after the accident, Chapell suffered a nervous breakdown. She was reported to be inconsolable.

Her family went to great lengths to keep her from learning Roe’s condition and the news of her eventual death.

Changes for Safety

Automobile safety had already been a topic of great debate in town before Elgin’s first traffic fatality. Newspaper editorials decried reckless drivers travelling at (single digit) breakneck speeds. Business owners worried about the safety of downtown shoppers.

A speed limit of 8 mph had been enacted in 1904 but some feared this was still not sufficient.

Perhaps foretelling Roe’s tragic accident, Alderman E.E.Kenyon had argued “a horse you can hear coming but when one of those machines looms out in front of you, it takes all the sense out of a person. I believe a speed of 8 mph is a danger and a menace to the welfare of the public.”

The speed limit was lowered to 6 mph in the business district but this was not enough to prevent the accident that claimed the life of Marietta Roe.

About The Elgin History Museum

The Elgin History Museum is housed in an 1856 landmark building known as Old Main that was once part of the Elgin Academy campus. The Elgin Area Historical Society, which was founded in 1961, is a thriving organization that operates within the museum. The society has a board of directors with a mission that is driven to preserve and educate the community about Elgin history.

The Elgin History Museum is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. Two floors of Elgin history exhibits pull you back in time to remember how the community developed from 1835 to today.

For more information, visit elginhistory.org.

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