Eramosa Twp. train wreck claimed three lives in 1907

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.

Last week’s column described some of the railway accidents on the Grand Trunk’s line between Rockwood and Guelph in the early 20th century. 

This week the story picks up with the worst wreck of them all, which occurred on Feb. 26, 1907. 

The Grand Trunk’s Train 5 was one of its fast through trains, leaving Toronto at 1pm and arriving at Detroit, by way of Sarnia and Port Huron, at 9:35pm daily. Though fast, it stopped at many stations, nine between Toronto and Guelph. 

On Feb. 26, 1907 it was four minutes behind time leaving Rockwood, and the engineer tried to make up some of that by running fast to Guelph, where the train was due at 2:50pm. It was not impossible: the schedule allowed 15 minutes between Rockwood and Guelph; trains frequently made the distance in eight minutes. 

About two miles east of the Guelph station, engineer Bill Thompson was about to shut off the steam and begin slowing for the stop. His train consisted of an express car, a combination baggage and smoking car, two coaches and a Pullman parlor car. The locomotive, No. 955, was a little more than two years old, and one of the Grand Trunk’s new and heavy express engines, weighing 91 tons. At that moment, Thompson had the train rolling at about 60 miles per hour. 

Suddenly, as the train hit a curve, a rail snapped. The train bumped along the ties for a distance. Then the rear cars broke away from the rest of the train, and tumbled down an embankment between 35 and 40 feet high. A couple of them turned over. The locomotive and express car, which did not derail, continued for another 200 yards. Then the express car broke away, taking the tender with it. Eventually the locomotive braked to a stop. By an eery coincidence, the derailment occurred near Trainor’s Cut, at almost the same location as the major derailment of 1904. 

Considering the speed of the train, and the tumbling of the coaches down the embankment, the carnage was not as great as might be expected. All the passengers received a thorough shaking and some bruises, some of them severely so. There were about 40 serious injuries, ranging from cuts to broken limbs, and three fatalities. 

Two of the dead were Stratford residents. John O’Donoghue was a former mayor of the city, and had been travelling on business. He was involved with a cement company at Owen Sound, and with the Eugenia Falls electrical development. When his car rolled over he had been tossed across the car, and broke his neck on the luggage rack. 

Charles Rankin, the 30-year old proprietor of a Stratford candy store, had been a well-known hockey player in his youth. He was returning home after refereeing a hockey game in Toronto. Riding in the parlor car, he was tossed around the car when it rolled, and his lifeless body came to rest in the lap of a minister, Rev. R.E. Knowles of Galt. Rankin had been married only 10 days earlier; his young bride had returned to Stratford on an earlier train. 

A little girl from Peterborough was the third fatality. She had been tossed through a window of the coach. Her mother and little brother, sitting on the same seat, were only bruised and dazed. The girl’s uncle, G.E. Walker, was the Grand Trunk’s ticket agent at Guelph. 

News of the accident reached Guelph in a few minutes, by telephone from nearby residents. The resourceful and clearheaded telephone operators started calling doctors at once. Fortunately, most of Guelph’s medical men were in their offices seeing patients at that hour. Railway officials, meanwhile, assigned a locomotive and spare coach to send the doctors and other volunteers to the site of the wreck. A while later, another group of doctors went to the scene. With assistance from the growing crowd of spectators, they examined and patched up the injured. Then cutters and carriages took them to the hospitals in Guelph. 

The Grand Trunk sent a special train from Toronto to collect the passengers who were uninjured or only bruised. A special train from Stratford, with a large steam crane, arrived a little after 5pm, and a similar outfit from Toronto a short time later. They had the track repaired and open for traffic in less than two hours. 

That night, the railway brought in a larger derrick from London, but its crew failed in their attempts to drag the coaches up the embankment. Curiously, the cars were not badly damaged. As an alternative, the railway’s officials decided to construct a temporary track along the side of the embankment, get them back on rails, and pull them back to the main line. That proved to be unnecessary: using two derricks, crews pulled all the cars up and onto the tracks two days after the wreck. They sat for a while in Guelph before being taken to London for repairs, drawing a constant stream of curious onlookers. 

None of the crew members suffered major injuries. All were amazed that the toll was not more frightful. Had the derailment occurred in summer, the derailed cars would not have slid so easily down the frozen embankment, and had it happened at night, the gas lighting system would surely have set the wooden coaches afire. 

While the rescue and repair work progressed, Guelph’s coroner, Dr. Robinson, and crown attorney Henry Peterson planned an inquest. It convened the next morning at 9:30am. The jurors examined the bodies of the deceased, then visited the scene of the wreck. 

Dr. Robinson and Henry Peterson took their roles very seriously. “The duty of the jury,” said the doctor, “is not to decide how the deceased met death, which will be a  comparatively easy matter, but rather to decide what caused the accident and what means could be taken by the GTR to improve conditions at this point.” 

Under their instructions, Guelph police scoured the wreck site, taking away pieces of rail and other debris and making measurements. The newspapers in Guelph and Toronto were full of speculation. Many people with a knowledge of railways claimed the rail was too light for the weight of the locomotive. Grand Trunk officials insisted that the track had been in first-class shape, and the accident had been unforeseen and unavoidable. 

Because the inquest focused on the rail, much of the evidence was technical in nature. The sessions dragged on intermittently, for more than three weeks, but the public maintained its interest. On some days, between 300 and 400 people were in the gallery. 

The procession of witnesses seemed endless: railway employees from superintendents down to section men, independent experts hired by the railway, and engineers employed by the Board of Railway Commissioners. 

Nothing emerged from the evidence to suggest that the track had been in poor shape, or that speed had been excessive. The experts more or less agreed that there had been an undetected flaw in the rail, which had been in service without problems since 1888. Most thought the weight of the locomotive, combined with its speed, was responsible. The locomotive weighed 50% more than the ones previously used on the line. 

After an adjournment of several days, Dr. Robinson reconvened the inquest on March 13. By that time he was convinced that the rail on the line was far too light for the new locomotives. The Grand Trunk had replaced or strengthened all the bridges on the line in 1906 to allow the use of the new and heavier engines, but had not replaced the rails. Dr. Robinson wanted to subpoena the official responsible for authorizing the use of the heavy locomotives, but the Grand Trunk’s solicitor testified that track and locomotives were under separate jurisdictions. 

Exasperated at the runaround, Dr. Robinson thundered, “I will subpoena every Grand Trunk Railway official, from [president] Mr. C.M. Hays on down until I get the responsible man, if the inquest has to be postponed for weeks.”

Crown attorney Peterson suggested that the Grand Trunk be provided with a statement listing the information required, and that they could send whatever official was responsible. 

The jury heard more evidence from Grand Trunk employees, but all proved adept at the old railway art of diffusing and shifting the blame. One fact did emerge: the rail was significantly lighter than the railway had recorded in its records. 

Eventually, numb after reviewing the piles of evidence, the jury presented its verdict. They believed that the accident was caused by a combination of excessive speed, and rail that was too light for the weight of the locomotive. They presented a series of recommendations to avoid a similar incident. 

Crown attorney Peterson sent copies of the verdict to the Board of Railway Commissioners, the Ontario Municipal Board, and federal investigators. 

Meanwhile, civil lawsuits initiated by the injured proceeded through the system. The Grand Trunk’s solicitors attempted to reach settlements outside the courts. By mid-May of 1907, the railway had paid out more than $50,000, with the largest settlement being $8,000. The major claims had yet to be settled. The process dragged on for many months, and many thousands of dollars more. 

Less than three months after the fatal wreck, the same train, No. 5, suffered another mishap at the same place. The coupler on the locomotive failed, splitting it away from the train. The separation broke the air hose, causing the brakes on both the train and locomotive to be applied automatically. Both came to a stop without any injury or damage. 

Most railway men of that era were a superstitious lot. After the failed coupler, all were on their toes any time a train travelled between Rockwood and Guelph. Perhaps due to the extra caution, or perhaps merely by chance, there were no more wrecks on the line for 26 years. 

On the sunny Sunday morning of May 11, 1933, the coupler mechanism on a flatcar failed on a westbound freight train at Trainor’s Cut, two miles east of Guelph. The car upended and derailed, as did the following five cars. Except for two carloads of railway ties, the train consisted of a long string of empty freight cars. There were no injuries, despite the fact that a number of homeless people were hitching a free ride on the train. 

Since then, there have been more railway accidents on the line between Rockwood and Guelph. And despite the installation of warning signals, collisions between trains and motor vehicles have been all too frequent. 

But those are stories for another time. 

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Feb. 18, 2005.

Thorning Revisited