Bread delivery man killed at Elora railway station in 1929

Some of the most senseless accidents, and all too many consequent fatalities, are those involving motor vehicles and trains.

One that certainly falls in that category was the death of Robert G. Dobbie, the Elora baker, who was killed at the Irvine Street crossing of the Canadian Pacific Railway tracks in Elora 75 years ago.

Dobbie had crossed the tracks there hundreds of times while completing his delivery route. He was familiar with the Canadian Pacific’s routine at that crossing, which was at the eastern edge of the yard. There was a switch at the western side of the street. One track led to the roundhouse and the other to the station and to various buildings in the yard.

The locomotive of the daily mixed train was switching cars, as it usually did that time of day, at about 2:30 in the afternoon of Nov. 13, 1929. A common move by the train crew was to pull several cars rapidly and then uncouple the locomotive. The engine would proceed along one track, and after it passed a switch a crew member would quickly line the switch to send the cars down the other track. They would roll on under their own momentum.

This was a regular move by the crew, and they would perform it several times a day. Dobbie had often watched it as he sat waiting at the crossing. On this day, though, he seemed to be in a hurry, though it was a routine Wednesday afternoon.

After the locomotive crossed over the street he moved ahead. Switchman Frank Walter was at the crossing, and he signaled Dobbie to stop because the cars were only a few feet away. The impatient baker ignored the warning.

Either he was going too slowly or his truck stalled on the tracks. Witnesses could not be sure. Within seconds the moving freight cars, comprising four empty box cars, slammed his truck broadside.

The freight cars were not moving quickly, but they far outweighed Dobbie’s truck. They smashed it to pieces. Dobbie himself was under the wreckage. It was obvious that he had been killed.

One of the crew immediately ran to the nearby station building and called physician Dr. William Kerr, who also wore hats as the railway’s appointed doctor at Elora and as the local coroner. He supervised the removal of the body from the wreckage, confirming that Dobbie was dead. Frank Fischer, the undertaker, had also been called, and he took the body away.

The funeral took place the following Friday afternoon at Dobbie’s residence on Metcalfe Street. Dr. Dickie of the Elora United Church conducted the service. Pallbearers included three of Dobbie’s brothers.

The deceased had been born in Scotland in 1879, and trained as a baker. He immigrated initially to Fergus, but in 1914 he purchased the long-established Elora bakery that had been started decades earlier by David Massie. Dobbie was survived by his wife and three daughters.

Dr. Kerr called an inquest for the following Monday evening at 9pm at the old Elora Town Hall. The crowd overflowed the room, with many sitting on the window sills and others standing against the walls.

Grocer E.C. Grimes acted as foreman of the jury, composed of prominent men in Elora. Canadian Pacific had one of its solicitors present, and the Dobbie family had engaged the Guelph law firm of Guthrie and Kirwin to look after their interests.

Crown attorney J.M. Kearns questioned the witnesses. Dr. Robertson stated that he had examined the body about 90 minutes after death. He described Robert Dobbie’s major injuries, which included a deep cut to the scalp, a severed arm, loosened teeth, much bruising and abrasions, and two broken bones in the left leg. His opinion was that death resulted from shock. He admitted that he had not been at the scene of the accident.

Frank Walter, the switchman who had been near the accident, testified next. He stated that the crew was preparing their train for a 3:45pm departure, and that the accident had occurred at 2:20pm according to his watch. He said the afternoon was cloudy but not dark. He described the track layout and the usual switching manouevres performed there.

Walter testified that he had motioned Dobbie back from the crossing and that after the locomotive had crossed Irvine Street on its way to the roundhouse, Dobbie had started driving north over the crossing, seemingly oblivious to the four moving boxcars that were only about two car lengths behind the locomotive.

He was at the switch, ready to operate it before boxcars reached it. When he looked up, Walter testified that he saw Dobbie’s Chevrolet truck on the track, with the four boxcars bearing down fast.

Answering questions posed by Dobbie family lawyer Peter Kirwin, Walter said the procedure at the crossing was known as a flying switch, and that he had performed it there regularly since being assigned to the Elora run in 1920. He said there was no regulation outlawing a flying switch, and that the track was clearly visible for a half a mile east of the Irvine Street crossing.

Brakeman Leonard Scott was next to testify. He had worked on the Elora run since 1903, and the procedures had remained the same during that time. On the day in question he had uncoupled the locomotive from the four boxcars as they rolled west toward Irvine Street, and had then climbed a boxcar to operate the hand brake wheel.  He said Dobbie’s truck was on the south side of the track the last time he looked. A few seconds later he heard a shout, and began to apply the brake as quickly as he could.

Next to be called was fireman George Southorn. He added little to what had already been stated. He was in the fireman’s seat on the left side of the locomotive. The bell, which was powered, was ringing, and he had noticed Dobbie’s truck stopped to the south of the road crossing.

Charles Merrill followed. He lived in a house near the Irvine Street crossing, and had watched the accident unfold through a window. He had seen brakeman Walter signal Dobbie to stop, and then watched as Dobbie ignored the signal and headed across the tracks. Then he heard a crash.

Merrill was of the opinion that Dobbie’s truck had stalled, and that he did not have time to leave the vehicle before the boxcars hit. He said he had never seen anyone attempt to cross between the locomotive and the following cars during a flying switch at that location.

That concluded the examination of the witnesses. Crown attorney Kearns addressed the jury, telling them they had the authority to make any recommendations regarding switching procedures that they thought desirable, or any other recommendations pertinent to the case, in addition to ruling on the complicity of the railway in Dobbie’s death.

The jury returned to the hearing after about 30 minutes of deliberation. They ruled that Dobbie came to his death “from injuries received when his delivery truck was struck by a freight car on the CPR track. We find his death accidental.”

The family had hoped, and the Canadian Pacific lawyer had feared, that the jury might find the railway negligent in some way, and that the family would be awarded a substantial financial settlement.

That was sometimes the outcome in such cases, which lawyers liked to frame in “David vs. Goliath” terms. As it turned out the family was left with nothing other than a legal bill from Guthrie and Kirwin.


Stephen Thorning