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.
One of my current historical projects is to compile a complete file of all the derailments, wrecks and collisions on the Grand Trunk Railway in Wellington County during the first 15 years of this century.
The number is startling.
Some of these accidents involved serious injury and death, but most caused only property damage, with only minor scrapes and bruises to the public or to railway employees.
The Grand Trunk experienced a steady rise in business beginning in the late 1890s, which burdened the line due to obsolete, worn out equipment and years of deferred maintenance. To function at all, the line often had to disregard safety measures, and this produced a somewhat cavalier attitude among employees.
Recently I stumbled upon one of the more bizarre of these accidents.
It occurred in 1907 on the Grand Trunk’s spur line in Fergus, which ran from the station at the western edge of town, along the south side of St. Patrick Street, and ending at Monkland Mills at the eastern edge of Fergus.
The Grand Trunk had constructed this line in the summer of 1904, with funding provided by a loan from Fergus, to provide direct service to Monkland Mills, the Fergus market grounds, and other rail customers on the route.
The line ran close to a number of houses on St. Patrick Street – almost on the front steps of some.
On the morning of March 4, 1907 a Mr. Morrison, employed as a section man by the Grand Trunk, was busy removing ice from the crossings along St. Patrick Street. The previous day had been mild, and melting snow accumulated at the crossings and froze over night.
Morrison was chopping away at the ice near Provost Lane, a block west of St. David Street, when a locomotive, pushing two empty flat cars and a box car, approached and stopped.
Morrison told the engineer and conductor that the crossings were all impacted with hard ice, and that it was unsafe to proceed until the ice was removed.
The engine crew scoffed and waved Morrison aside. The engineer tugged at the throttle and the train began to move again. After about 30 feet, the ice caused the first flat car to climb off the rails. The lead end swung to the south, and clipped the corner off a coal shed owned by Fergus businessman T.J. Hamilton.
The ground sloped away from the track at this point. There was no stopping the flat car.
It continued to swing around, and smashed through the front wall of a stone duplex house.
Just inside, the residents of the dwelling, Mrs. Fischer, Mrs. Brittle, and her niece, Miss Mackenzie, were enjoying a morning cup of tea.
The flat car continued through the house, hitting the wall on the opposite side of the building. This stopped the movement of the car, but the stone wall was cracked in the process.
All the women received scrapes and bruises. One suffered a broken shoulder, and another had an ankle badly twisted. Mrs. Fischer had the closest call. She was pinned between the flat car and the wall, under a pile of rubble and broken furniture.
Miraculously, she survived, though with back injuries and broken bones in her foot.
A brakeman and the conductor had been standing on the flat car. Both jumped. The brakeman landed on his feet, but the conductor was dragged under the car. He escaped with a few scrapes and a bad shaking.
Startled onlookers ran to fetch Dr. Norman Kyle, who sent the injured to the Royal Alexandra Hospital, owned at that time by Dr. Abraham Groves.
The Grand Trunk brought a crane from Palmerston to retrieve the flat car, which was accomplished by late afternoon.
The public perception was that the Grand Trunk Railway was a fabulously wealthy concern. Wrecks and accidents usually produced a flood of lawsuits, and the railway employed an army of lawyers to fight them. As a precautionary measure, the Grand Trunk sent in its own physician to examine the injured. Officials were afraid that they might be sued for injuries that never happened.
In the end, though, there was no lawsuit over this accident. The Grand Trunk quickly admitted its liability. T.J. Hamilton, who owned the wrecked dwelling as well as the adjoining coal yard, estimated structural damage at about $300.
The Fergus News Record published a photograph of the house subsequent to the accident. It shows a gaping hole in the front of the house, about 15 feet wide (unfortunately, the photo is too dark to reproduce properly here).
The railway’s attorneys reached a settlement with the three women for their injuries, and for the damage to their furniture and household goods. All recovered.
T.J. Hamilton repaired the house, but it has since been demolished.
At the time of this accident, the Grand Trunk Railway was experiencing a particularly bad series of mishaps. A public inquiry, investigating the derailment of a passenger train east of Guelph, was holding daily sessions and generating headlines in papers all over the area.
A couple of days after the Fergus accident, a homeless woman was struck by a train at high speed near Guelph. Her body was cut in pieces and strewn gruesomely over the track.
She had been known to section men and track workers in the area, who occasionally gave her something to eat. She carried no papers, and her identity was never determined.
The Grand Trunk could not be blamed for the latter fatality, but it had a demoralizing effect on its employees. The railway had suffered too many negative stories in the early months of 1907 – from the Guelph passenger train wreck and further derailments and collisions.
It is likely that these other mishaps were a factor in the quick admission of liability in the Fergus accident.
Morrison, the section man, had already told his story to the newspapers. A protracted court case would only portray the Grand Trunk as a mean spirited company, abusing poor widows.
These railway accidents tell much about the workings of the legal system over 100 years ago, about the routine operations of the railway, and about public attitudes to safety.
I doubt, though, that there is another example quite like this one: a flat car dropping into the parlour for morning tea.
*This column was originally published in the Advertiser on July 12, 1999.