Fuel sources, illegal alcohol, train tragedy: A few tales from the 1920s

A few weeks ago this column featured several short pieces, none of which was long enough for a full 1,200-word story, but were sufficiently interesting to bear repeating.

I heard from a few readers who liked the idea, so it bears repeating again this week. The first of these items is from 90 years ago, the late winter of 1923.

A major winter aggravation at that time was the supply and price of coal for household heating. The vast majority of coal used in southern Ontario came from the United States. Supplies, in the years before and after the First World War, were frequently disrupted by strikes, and burgeoning demand across North America strained availability. As well, there were periodic shortages of coal hoppers on the railways to transport the fuel.

Coal dealers in Wellington County urged their customers to lay in a supply of coal during the summer. Farmers were generally in a better position. Many stuck with or switched to wood fuel, cut from their own bush. Some farmers supplied relatives and friends in town with firewood.

A few farmers in East Luther came up with a different scheme. During the summer of 1922 they dug up some of the muck that covered their farms. Tom Townsend was one of them. He had several acres of swampy land on his farm. He cut the muck into bricks about 14 inches square and six inches thick. He then stacked the bricks to allow them to dry in the sun and wind.

In fall Townsend gathered the bricks on a wagon and dumped them in his woodshed.

During the following winter he used the bricks in both the kitchen stove and his furnace, with satisfactory results.

Several of Townsend’s neighbours followed his example. Both Townsend and those knowledgeable with fuel admitted that the method used by Townsend was unlikely to be acceptable or profitable for commercial application, but for the farmers involved it offered a constant and ready supply of fuel for little more than the cost of their labour.

Other farmers watched the process of peat harvesting, and several more procured their own supplies of fuel in the years afterward.

The commercial exploitation of the peat bogs in East and West Luther have been covered previously in this column, but the use of the fuel by individual farmers for their own use is less well known.

It is quite likely that some residents may have continued to use peat through the Depression of the 1930s, but its demise would be the same: it was messy to handle, and it possessed a low heat value.

* * *

Fuel was not the only commodity in short supply during the early 1920s.

Those were the years of prohibition, and suppliers risked the strong arms of law enforcement officers as they struggled to keep their customers supplied with booze. Courts preferred fines to jail terms, and the amounts could be quite substantial.

A number of barbers carried on a lucrative sideline as liquor suppliers. Many offered drinks by the glass to known customers. Their businesses offered a perfect front. They could keep liquor in bottles masquerading as hair tonic. And there was nothing unusual in seeing a steady stream of men entering a barber shop, and sitting around exchanging jokes and ribald stories. Should a stranger enter the barber shop, there were few hints that liquor was available there.

Nevertheless, spotters became adept at sniffing out those shops were liquor was available. Other store keepers also entered the illicit liquor business to supplement their income. One of the latter was Jim Keogh, who operated a butcher shop in Rockwood. In 1921 he ran afoul of the law and appeared before the hard-nosed Magistrate Watt of Guelph, who fined him $500 plus costs. That was a huge amount at a time when 25 cents per hour was a good wage.

After hearing the sentence, Keogh’s lawyer filed a motion that he intended to appeal the conviction. Magistrate Watt deferred payment of the fine, and released Keogh until the appeal was heard.

Keogh and his lawyer never did file an appeal, and the affair lingered for months, then years. By then Keogh was certain that his case had slipped through the cracks, and had been forgotten. He did not count on the authorities being so thorough.

In February 1923 Provincial Constable Mennie received instructions from Toronto to round up Keogh. The phony appeal ruse used by Keogh had apparently become a common one for liquor offenders to employ to avoid paying fines.

The constable went to Rockwood and, as he expected, found Keogh behind the counter in his shop. Keogh was taken completely by surprise, and offered no resistance to Constable Mennie. Within the hour Keogh was sitting in a cell in Guelph. The authorities told him he would remain there until he paid his $500 fine from 1921.

The authorities gave him four months to cough up the money, and after payment he would be released. If the fine was not paid within that time, he would begin serving a two-year sentence.

Keogh argued with the jail authorities that he was in very poor health, and that a jail sentence would cause him great harm. A few days after his incarceration he took a bad spell. The Guelph jailors called in a doctor to examine Keogh. A couple of days later he showed signs of improvement.

The historical record does not seem to show whether Keogh or his friends managed to scrape together $500 to pay the fine, or if he served a jail term.

* * *

Fatalities on railways, to passengers and particularly to employees, were appallingly commonplace decades ago.

Most of the accidents to railway workers occurred with falls from rolling stock or in crashes and derailments. One fatality that did not come under that heading was that of John Murchison, who was part of a gang changing ties on the Canadian Pacific line between Arthur and Grand Valley.

An eastbound freight train had received orders at Arthur to pass Murchison’s gang slowly and cautiously. The train slowed for the work order, and the gang had taken refuge in the ditch beside the track.

The locomotive was crawling past when Murchison noticed that a track gauge, used to keep the rails in alignment, had been left on the rails. Frantically, he rushed up to remove it from the path of the locomotive. Murchison feared that the gauge would derail the locomotive, causing major damage and probably injury to the locomotive crew. He was not in time. The engine crushed him, and sent him rolling down the embankment. When his coworkers picked him up life was extinct. The locomotive wheels hit the track gauge, but knocked it safely out of the way.

John Murchison was an older man. His poor judgment in attempting to beat the train surprised many people, and shocked the Arthur community, where he was a popular and well-known resident.

Originally a successful and prosperous farmer, he had moved to Arthur when agriculture became a more tenuous occupation before the First World War. Later he took up more secure employment as a railway worker on the CPR. He left a widow and five adult children to mourn his loss.


Stephen Thorning