Canadian National Railway suffered a wreck near Palmerston in 1936

Train wrecks have been a popular feature in this column over the years.

The largest number were in the years immediately prior to the First World War, when railroaders had a somewhat cavalier attitude to safety, and railway equipment did not meet the standards of later years.

Mercifully, there were very few serious injuries or deaths in those mishaps. In the post-1920 era wrecks were far less frequent, but they did occur occasionally.

One of those later wrecks happened on Oct. 20, 1936 a couple of miles south of Palmerston. Train 543 was a freight originating in Hamilton in the early hours of the morning. The crew had switching duties at many of the small stations along the way, and major work at the yard in Guelph before proceeding north.

Train 543 usually reached Palmerston between 6 and 7am, but on days when it was running late it passed the morning train from Palmerston to Toronto at Elora or Fergus. That happened on this day, and without incident. The freight stopped briefly at Moorefield at about 9am. At about 9:10, a mere two miles from the freight train’s destination at Palmerston, a draw-bar broke on one of the freight cars. That happened occasionally with freight cars, and the results were seldom good.

This time the coupler on the injured car dropped down, and wedged itself against a tie. The coupler acted as a lever, lifting the car up. The momentum of the train behind added to the force, pushing the car sideways and clear of the rails.

When the car came down it had veered to the right of the track and into the ditch. That forced the car following in the other direction, derailing it to the left side of the track. Two more cars derailed as well, though they remained upright and on the roadbed.

The point where the cars initially derailed to the final resting place measured about 150 feet. The train had been moving slowly. Had the speed been greater the destruction would have been far more significant.

Even as it was, the wreck resulted in quite a mess. Ties were split and splintered, and rails were ripped from the ties and twisted. All the derailed cars were fully loaded. Three of them were filled with Coke, and the fourth presented considerable danger, as it was filled with gasoline.

The crew received a bone-rattling shaking, but no one suffered any injuries.

A couple of crew members set off for the Palmerston station on foot, while others protected the rear of the train. The morning train from Toronto was due in a short time, and the crew did not want it to pile into the wreck.

The Palmerston operator immediately wired to Stratford for the wrecking train to be sent to sort out the mess, and another message went to the Moorefield agent to hold the passenger train at that station.

The Moorefield agent also made arrangements for several wagons to take passengers, mail and express on to the Palmerston station. There the yard crew put together an improvised train to get the people and mail on to their destinations.

By noon the wrecking train was on site. The immediate priority was to get the line open for the afternoon southbound passenger train. For that train, and most of the other passenger runs in the area, moving people was only part of the job, and one that lost money. The majority of the revenue came from the mail contract, and from lucrative express shipments which had to moved as quickly as possible.

The wrecking crane soon lifted the first two derailed cars, moving them out of the way and into the ditch on either side of the track. The men then set about getting the two other derailed cars back on the track. The locomotive of the passenger train that had stopped at Moorefield inched up to the site to assist. Soon those cars were at the Palmerston yard for repairs.

Meanwhile, an emergency call went to section crews based in Harriston, Palmerston, Moorefield and Drayton to rush to the wreck site and get the track back into repair. By then a couple of senior personnel from Stratford were on the scene.

Other than the two cars that had rolled into the ditch, the line was open late that afternoon, at about 5pm. There was a slight delay to the southbound passenger train, due out of Palmerston at about 4:30.

The wrecking crew returned to the accident site after the passage of the passenger train, and retrieved one of the cars in the ditch before the passage of the next scheduled train. Then they returned to get the last of the derailed cars.

This time things did not run so smoothly. In attempting to lift the car the crane became unbalanced, and toppled over into the ditch. Chris Witt, the crane operator, was injured, suffering a couple of broken ribs and a scalding.

At about 1am the following morning a second crane arrived, this one from Toronto. That rig succeeded in pulling the derailed car from the ditch. It was badly damaged, but the wrecking crew soon had it in the Palmerston yards for repair by the railway men there.

In the afternoon the Toronto wrecking crane tackled its second job, getting the crippled Stratford crane out of the ditch and back on the rails.

It wasn’t as easy as it sounded. The crane was very heavy, and snapped a couple of cables. The men tried to ease the derrick back to the track with timbers and ties, but it was simply too heavy. The next move was to call in a heavier crane. The closest was at Allandale, near Barrie.

Getting the Allandale crane to Palmerston would take the best part of day. Unfortunately, the prone Stratford crane now lay too close to the track, preventing anything from passing by. The foreman instructed his men to build a short temporary bypass track to allow passenger trains to pass by the scene.

The Allandale crane arrived after midnight on Oct. 22, and, working with the Toronto crane, the two had the Stratford outfit on the track again shortly after 5am.  Though it could be moved, it was badly damaged. A locomotive took it back to Stratford at very slow speed for repairs there. The other two cranes, meanwhile, returned to their home bases.

This had turned into a very expensive and labour-intensive wreck. But there was more.

Locomotive number 1311, the power for the Stratford wrecking crane, almost landed in the turntable pit at the Palmerston roundhouse. The engineer, apparently overtired from round-the-clock work, did not notice that the turntable was not lined up for his track. He managed to stop in the nick of time. A few more inches and the locomotive would have landed in the pit.

The Toronto crane was called into service to pull the locomotive from the brink of the pit and re-rail the wheels that had been suspended over the edge in midair. That task took almost two hours, but it was completed successfully.

The 1936 Canadian National train wreck was a relatively minor one, but it proved to be a troublesome one to clean up. It required the assistance of three emergency crews, and hundreds of hours of overtime.

It appears that the first crew tried to save as much of the Coke in three of the cars as was possible. That led to the problems in lifting the cars due to their weight.

In cases such as this the division superintendent invariably conducted a full investigation. He would have been most curious to learn why a four-car derailment required three wrecking crews and the assistance of dozens of men, and expensive repairs to rolling stock.

There is an old saying to the effect that the art of railroading consists of shifting the blame. This was a good example of that adage.


Stephen Thorning