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Valuing Our History

by Stephen Thorning

A cluster of railway incidents in the summer of 1912

Train wrecks have always been a source of fascination to most people.

Perhaps it is the scale of the destruction - the size and weight of railway rolling stock - that grasps the attention of onlookers. Or perhaps it is a sense of relief that people were not personally involved. In any case, stories of those wrecks are popular with readers, and Wellington County has had its full share of derailments and crashes over the 155 years that railways have operated here.

There were many incidents on railways that were not major wrecks, but which resulted in injuries and destruction. Historically, railways had a cavalier approach to safety, especially that of employees. And members of the public were no better, often failing to realize that the size, weight, and power of moving trains could be unyielding.

Recently I stumbled on a group of accidents during the first week of September 1912. There were injuries, but no fatalities or major damage with any of them.

The first of those occurred on the morning of Sept. 2 in downtown Guelph, at the Canadian Pacific’s crossing of the street below Allan’s Bridge. At the point the CPR’s tracks curved sharply, across the street and over the Speed River as they passed beneath the Grand Trunk’s track on top of the bridge. It was a dangerous crossing of the street, but made less so because all trains passed that point at very low speed due to a sharp curve.

As well, there were several sidings in the area, and locomotives often shuffled back and forth at slow speed moving cars in and out of them. Automatic warning bells provided some protection to people on the roadway.

Early in the morning of the fateful day, Tom Clemes and a chum of his, both from Acton, approached the crossing on foot. The bells were ringing as a locomotive passed slowly across the street. The pair were struck by the grab-irons on the side of a baggage car being pulled by the locomotive.

Clemes received the more significant injuries. A piece of wood about two inches long was driven through his jaw, breaking the bone, and knocking several teeth out of his mouth. His pal was knocked backward, coming to rest sprawled across another track. After a few moments he rose to his feet. He regained his senses quickly, then ran away, abandoning the injured and bleeding Clemes.

Bystanders came to the aid of Clemes, and he was soon on his way to the General Hospital for medical attention. Police suspected that the pair had been drinking, but Clemes was not very forthcoming with information.

Both the police and railway officials kept up a watch for the fleeing chum, but their task was made difficult because Clemes would not name him. Apparently he made his way quietly out of town.

Though Clemes reeked of liquor, police could not believe that the pair had not seen and heard the train and crossing warning bell. What is more likely is that the young men had been playing a game of “chicken” with the train, and that both had lost. It was miraculous that the injuries to Clemes and his friend were not more severe.

Two days later, on Wednesday evening, there was an incident at the Elora Grand Trunk station. William Godfrey, the agent, had recently returned to work after several weeks of illness. On the fateful evening he decided to rewind the clock that hung high on the wall of his office. Rather than retrieve a step ladder from the freight room, he shoved a wooden chair alongside a cupboard, and climbed up to reach the clock.

He was a little shaky, but managed to get a solid footing on the cupboard, and rewound the clock with no difficulty. But in stepping down, he misjudged the position of the chair. In an instant he was sprawled on the floor, moaning and yelling.

His shouts attracted the attention of a man working in the freight portion of the station. He came to Godfrey’s aid, and half carried him to his wagon and on to the Godfrey home. A doctor quickly concluded that Godfrey had broken his hip, and directed that he be sent to the Guelph General Hospital for expert attention in setting the bone, with the assistance of X-rays.

Godfrey recovered, but had a noticeable limp afterwards to remind him of his foolishly-improvised ladder.

Three days later, on Saturday evening, there was another incident in Guelph involving Henry Hortop, the well-known miller of Eramosa Township. He was driving a carriage, taking a group of Eramosa women to a church function. As he was crossed the Canadian Pacific tracks across Eramosa Road, the crossing gates came down.

Guelph’s new CPR station, to the immediate north of the crossing, had opened a year earlier. One of the improvements in the area had been a new set of gates on Eramosa Road, operated by an attendant in a small tower beside the track.

The operator obviously had not checked the street. The gate came down between Hortop’s horse and the carriage. The gate keeper saw what had happened, and quickly lifted the gates, only to let them fall a second later. This time the gate struck Hortop’s wrists, leaving nasty bruises.

The operator eventually raised the gate successfully, allowing Hortop to proceed. It was a close call: a freight train was backing through the crossing, and missed Hortop’s rig by inches.

Hortop was lucky. Had his horse balked, the incident might have been fatal. Hortop himself was taken to the General Hospital for x-rays to determine whether any bones in his wrists and hands had been broken.

There had been a couple of other incidents at that crossing during the summer of 1912. Undoubtedly the gate keeper was responsible. Canadian Pacific admitted no responsibility for itself or its employee, so the full details are not known. Nevertheless, it was the practice of railways to assign employees who had been injured to positions as crossing gate attendants. Occasionally, men with drinking problems would receive such assignments, rather than being dismissed.

The man on duty at Eramosa Road may have been one of the latter. He might also have had some physical incapacity that prevented him from controlling the gates competently.

The hidden side of these incidents was the legal one. The majority of the public considered railways to be fat cats, ready to be plucked for generous settlements in lawsuits. Every railway employed an army of lawyers to defend its interests. When the company was responsible for injury or damage it usually settled quickly.

But if the legal men considered that their employer was being exploited they mounted a strong defence. The worst outcome for them was a suit going to a jury trial. Juries invariably sided with the poor plaintiff suing the big and heartless railway company.

No matter what the course or outcome, those petty cases were costly to the railways, and troublesome in that they invariably caused some ill will against themselves.

In those three cases of September 1912, only Henry Hortop had a genuine claim against the railway. He may well have sued and settled quietly, out of court. Bill Godfrey, the Elora agent, surely felt a little foolish for his laziness in not getting the ladder in order to wind the clock.

And Clemes and his pal were probably happy to let the whole matter drop. No juror could ever fault a railway because a couple of men walked into the side of a baggage car in broad daylight.


Vol 44 Issue 36


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Wellington County


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