1908 blizzards shut down roads and local rail lines

Ask oldtimers about severe winters in Wellington County, and most will immediately recall the blizzards of 1947 and the way they closed down the road and rail systems in this area.
But the worst of the 20th century was that of 1903-1904. The ground was covered with snow from Nov. 17, and it con­tinued to build up into eaves-high drift until the third week of April 1904.
This column covered those storms.. There were other disruptive winters. One occurred exactly 100 years ago.
The winter of 1908 began as a more-or-less typical one, though the total snow ac­cu­mu­lation was perhaps a little more than normal. Then it got nasty. The last week of January brought a cold spell with tem-per­atures as low as -28 degrees (-20 degrees on the old demo­crat­ic scale), followed by a blizzard that swept the entire province. Every passenger train ran late, some behind by many hours. On Jan. 29, the morning Canadian Pacific train from Toronto and Orangeville was six hours late into Mount Forest after bucking snowdrifts in the Inglewood area.
That was the beginning of a six-week stretch of storms and blowing snow that continually shut down rail lines and roads. Overall, the situation was worst in the northern part of the county, impacting the various Grand Trunk lines out of Pal­merston and the Canadian Paci­fic line from Orangeville to Arthur, Mount Forest, Harris­ton, and on to Teeswater and Wingham.
For a week after that Jan. 28 storm, the snow continued to blow and drift. The railways de­cided to cancel many of their trains, and those that did run were invariably hours late.
There was a respite in mid-February, with a thaw on Feb. 13 and 14. Then the thermo­meter headed south again while it was raining. The freezing rain built up a thick layer of ice on everything on Feb. 15. That was a Saturday, the traditional shopping night for farmers, but the streets in the towns in north Wellington were deserted, ex­cept for broken limbs, fallen trees, and snapped utility poles. The ice decommissioned the Canadian Pacific telegraph line to Orangeville, severing the wir­es in several places and topp­ling poles. The east-bound evening passenger train pulled up at the Mount Forest station for the night, and the railway put up the passengers at hotels. The westbound train from Tor­onto ended its run at Orange­ville.
During the following week more snow fell. Snowy days alternated with clear ones, but the wind kept up constantly. Keeping the lines opened strain­ed the abilities of railway crews. Most roads were impassible, blocked with drifts higher than a man, and a layer of ice beneath the whole mess.
Though the big problems in Wellington were confined to the northern portion of the coun­ty and other portions of the “snow belt,” there were trans­portation disruptions else­where in Ontario. On Feb. 21, the CPR trains from Toronto and Orangeville brought no mail whatsoever. That infuri­ated the residents of all small towns: the postal system was then the primary method of busi­ness communication. Fum­ing postal patrons left the post office to go home to write letters of complaint to their MP and the postmaster general. 
On Feb. 24, the weather over­whelmed the railway crews. Strong winds overnight blew the recently fallen snow, plug­ging the railway lines in places that already had drifted. Effectively, the rail lines were in a ditch of snow, with hard plowed walls on either side. There was simply no place to plow the new accumulations at those locations.
The railways struggled through Feb. 25, attempting to get a few trains through. Most were cancelled that day. The Grand Trunk’s morning train from Palmerston to Mount For­est and Durham bogged down in a drift a few miles from Palmerston. On the Canadian Paci­fic line, the afternoon east­bound train pulled out of Mount Forest late. Leaving Arthur it was even further be­hind schedule. Then it became embedded in a drift near Grand Valley. Its westbound counter­part from Orangeville was firmly in another drift, just east of Grand Valley.
A few passengers scrambled out. They staggered through drifts, arriving frozen and tired in Grand Valley. Along with the wind, they had to deal with extreme cold. Most of them stayed on board, keeping warm by huddling near the coal stoves that kept the anti­quated coach­es warm.
Those trains did not move a wheel until the next morning, Feb. 26. Eventually, the com­bin­ed efforts of shovellers and the plow got them moving again. The stalled train from Orangeville did not get to Mount Forest until about 10pm, some 26 hours after it departed Orangeville. It carried a heavy cargo of mail and ex­press. Among the shipments was one of newsprint needed desperately by the Confederate newspaper for its edition the next day. That was one of the few trains to roll that day. The Grand Trunk cancelled all trains running out of Palmer­ston, and the Canadian Pacific suspended service north and west of Orangeville.
Both railways reassembled their snow-fighting crews the next morning, Feb. 27, aug­ment­ing them with casual lab­ourers and men who normally operated the trains. By now, it was obvious that opening the lines would require an im­mense amount of shovelling. The day dawned bright, sunny, and with no wind, but it was still very cold.
Canadian Pacific cancelled trains west of Orangeville until 7pm, when the evening train set out for Mount Forest and Tees­water. With no trains that morn­ing, the Orangeville postmaster sent a horse-drawn sleigh to Grand Valley, Arthur, and Mount Forest. It carried the mail that should have arrived the previous day. The evening train from Orangeville arrived in Mount Forest at 10pm, with two locomotives and armed with a plow.
The Grand Trunk fared bet­ter, and did not cancel any trains. On the Palmerston-Durham line the passenger trains operated with two loco­motives to help buck the drifts.
Friday, Feb. 28 was a repeat of the previous day, as men dealt with drifted snow. No trains ran on the Teeswater branch until early evening. The Grand Trunk trains in and out of Palmerston all ran that day, though many were late.
With favourable weather that day, the snow clearing crews succeeded in clearing the lines. The good weather contin­ued on Saturday, Feb. 29. Trains ran on schedule without incident. Residents confidently predicted that the blockades were over for the season. After a stormy week, farmers were happy that night to go into the towns for shopping and social­iz­ing, even though the roads were difficult to travel.
But that night, a strong east wind came up. Long term resi­dents knew that meant trouble. Wet snow began to swirl around on the morning of March 1. It was a Sunday, and people decided to stay inside, especially those on farms. Coun­try roads were in an appalling condition. Only a handful of worshippers turned out at the churches that morn­ing. By noon the snowfall had worked up into a full-fledged blizzard that continued the rest of the day and into the night. With no scheduled trains on Sunday, the railway crews rest­ed. There was no point in opening up lines that were likely to be blocked again by morning.
Railway officials at Palmer­ston and Orangeville assembl­ed their crews early on the morning of Monday, March 2. That week would be their toughest assignment in a very tough winter.
Next week: A week of digging out of the heavy, wet March snow of 1908.

Stephen Thorning