The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.
Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.
Railway subjects are the most popular ones in this column and if reader comments are typical, train wrecks hold a stronger fascination than any other aspect of railroading.
I will leave it to psychologists to explain this interest. It is a widespread one: over the past 25 years there have been dozens of books published on train wrecks.
Derailments and collisions occurred much more frequently before 1920 or so than they have since then. Not only were wrecks more frequent in the earlier period, but they also were more dangerous and deadly. Better braking systems, heavy steel passenger cars, closer adherence to rules, automatic signals and many other factors made rail travel safer as the 20th century progressed.
The worst years in Wellington for train crashes occurred between 1900 and the First World War.
Several of the wrecks from those years have been described in this column over the years. The centennial of another is coming up: the Grand Trunk’s head-on collision near Gourock, southwest of Guelph, on the morning of Sept. 22, 1906.
Late in the evening of Sept. 21 a special train loaded with fruit left St. Catharines for Guelph and points north. Due to main line traffic congestion, the special took several hours to reach Hamilton. At 4:45am on Sept. 22 the train paused at Harrisburg, the junction point of the Guelph branch with the main line. There the crew received orders to run through to Guelph Junction, at the west end of Guelph near Alma Street. The special then headed north to Galt, Preston and Hespeler.
At Guelph, Train 44, a mixed train of freight and passengers, left the station at 5:50am. It was a short one: a baggage car of assorted freight and express for each of Preston and Galt, a combination mail, baggage and passenger car, and a coach. That run, so early in the morning, was not a popular one with travellers. About 10 passengers were on board.
At Galt the fruit special stopped to take on water at about 5:30am. For some reason it had not been able to maintain its speed, and was running later than expected. The distance from Galt to Guelph Junction was exactly 15 miles, and trains had no trouble covering that distance in 30 minutes.
Number 44 left Guelph station on time at 5:50am, and paused briefly at the Guelph Junction depot before departing 20 minutes later, right on schedule. Handling the throttle was Thomas Farley, an engineer based at Palmerston, and one of the regulars on No. 44. He had 35 years of service with the Grand Trunk.
With no clue that he was heading toward disaster, Farley sped out of Guelph Junction, heading for Gourock, Hespeler and the mainline connection at Harrisburg.
The fruit special, after leaving Galt, continued to have trouble maintaining speed. At a few minutes after 6am it rolled through Hespeler. According to the railway’s operating rules, the special was inferior to the mixed passenger train, and should have taken the siding at Hespleler because No. 44’s schedule gave it rights on the track between there and Guelph Junction.
The operator at Hespeler, astonished to see the special roll through the station, realized that a disaster might be imminent. At once he wired Guelph Junction to ask whether No. 44 had departed. It had.
Knowing that a head-on collision would occur in a few minutes, the Hespeler operator wired to Guelph for doctors and to arrange a special train to bring them to the crash site. He then wired the dispatcher, at the Stratford office, to prepare the wrecking train.
It was a foggy morning, and neither engineer could see very far ahead. Suddenly, at a sharp curve near the tiny flag stop of Gourock, engineer Farley slammed on the emergency brakes of No. 44. It was his last act. The two locomotives smashed together, and Farley was crushed to death in his seat.
The engine crew of the fruit special all jumped free of their locomotive, but all were injured. The impact reduced the locomotives to heaps of scrap metal. Because the crash occurred on a sharp curve, the force of the impact was somewhat oblique. The momentum forced both locomotives off the track and onto their sides, the boilers ruptured, sending jets of scalding steam in all directions.
The two baggage cars on No. 44 derailed but did not sustain major damage. One of the cars of fruit also derailed, scattering peaches everywhere. The remainder of the cars of both trains remained on the track. The passengers were more or less shaken up, but none sustained serious injury.
The emergency train from Guelph, with doctors, was on the scene in less than an hour. They attended to the three injured crewmen of the fruit train, and then rushed them to the General Hospital in Guelph. Fireman Cecil Bright suffered the most serious injuries: a broken nose and jaw, broken arm and ribs, plus internal injuries.
Engineer Mark Reid was badly scalded on the back by the escaping steam, and brakeman Harry Andrews was in agony from scalding over most of his body. Bright and Reid were from Hamilton, and Andrews from London. None of them were very familiar with the Harrisburg-Guelph line.
It was noon before rescue crews could remove the body of Tom Farley, the engineer of No. 44. He was a well known and popular man with his fellow workers, and had suffered recent tragedies.
His wife had died in May, leaving him with seven children, three of whom were not yet in their teens. Only eight days before his death his train had struck a carriage at the crossing of what became Highway 24, killing the woman who was driving it.
Wrecking crews from Stratford and Hamilton worked at the site until early evening, when they reopened the line.
The locomotive of No. 44 was No. 299, an ancient model constructed in 1871 and rebuilt in 1886. The Grand Trunk wrote it off the roster. The fruit special had been hauled by engine 443, a heavier engine, built in 1899 and rebuilt the previous May. It was repaired and returned to service until its retirement in 1927.
Coroner Dr. Robinson and Henry Peterson, the no-nonsense Guelph crown attorney, convened an inquest at 4pm the same day. The jurors included business mogul J.W. Lyon and George Ryan, proprietor of one of the major stores in Guelph. The first session was a short one, and the inquest adjourned until Sept. 25 to hear the evidence. Later that night fireman Cecil Bright died of his injuries.
At the next inquest session, Lorne Palmer, Farley’s fireman, was the first to testify. He said that he jumped immediately when he saw Farley suddenly tense and throw on the emergency brakes.
Edgar Hunt, the conductor of No. 44, testified that he had asked about a fruit special before leaving the Guelph station, but the operator told him there was nothing coming. The impact of the crash had knocked him down. He got up and herded the passengers out of the passenger car, and then walked back to Guelph Junction, about three miles away, to report the wreck.
Hunt told the jury that fruit specials were common at that time of year, and that No. 44 usually met them at Guelph Junction.
Under questioning from the Grand Trunk’s lawyer, he carefully outlined the operating rules of the railway. Unless its crew had orders to the contrary, he told the jury, the special fruit train was required to take a siding at least five minutes before a scheduled train was due.
The most important testimony came from Joe Thompson, conductor on the special. He said that it had been his intention to take the siding at Hespeler, but he had fallen asleep after the train left Preston.
He and the rest of his crew had been on duty since 8am the previous morning, more than 22 hours at the time of the crash. Over the previous four days he had been off duty only three hours each day.
Thompson insisted that he and his crew had been browbeaten into working such long hours. More senior Grand Trunk employees denied the coercion, and told the jury that any employee could book off for rest whenever they needed it.
The inquest adjourned again, this time to Oct. 1, when engineer Mark Reid would be well enough to testify. Reid told the inquest that he had been aware of No. 44’s schedule and that he should take the siding at Hespeler, but it had “slipped my memory” when he rolled passed the station.
He remembered the train again when he saw its headlight, about 150 feet away in the fog, at Gourock. He applied the brakes and told the other crew members to jump.
The jury reached a verdict quickly. They laid the blame jointly on conductor Joe Thompson and engineer Mark Reid of the fruit special. Both ought to have realized that they should have taken the siding at Hespeler, but through lack of sleep Reid’s mind was clouded and Thompson had drifted into slumber.
The chief blame, thought the jury, must rest with the Grand Trunk itself, for pushing its crews into long hours and not ensuring that its operating employees were properly rested when on duty.
*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Aug. 4, 2006.