Guelph businessman William Bell survived fall from a train in 1897

Most antique aficionados in Wellington County are aware of Bell Pianos and Organs.

In the last third of the 19th century the firm was the largest and most important manufacturer in Guelph, and the firm’s products were found in many of the school rooms and better homes in the county, across Canada and overseas.

William Bell was the key figure in the history of the firm. A native of Dumfries in Scotland, Bell arrived in Guelph in 1864 while in his early 30s. With his brother Robert he began making parlour organs, a popular instrument of the time, and one that cost much less than a piano.

Under William’s direction the firm expanded rapidly. By 1881 there were more than 200 employees. The company became a partnership in 1884, and four years later Bell sold a majority share to a British conglomerate, which injected new capital into the firm. That permitted Bell Organ to begin the manufacture of pianos on a large scale.

Bell was then in his early 50s, and had no intention to retire. He took an interest in other ventures, serving as a director of a couple of insurance companies and as president of the Traders Bank. He had many other investments in addition to those, and became a frequent commuter to Toronto, usually spending three or four days a week there.

By the late 1890s Bell was beginning to feel his age. On a Thursday in January of 1897 he suffered injuries in a bizarre accident: he fell from a train travelling at 40 miles per hour.

On Jan. 28 Bell had taken the morning train to Toronto, as he usually did, but the day would not be a typical one for him. A week earlier he had suffered a spell of heart trouble. On that day, while waiting at the old Toronto Union Station for his train to Guelph, he caught a bad chill. He felt terrible on the way home, and consulted his doctor when he arrived in Guelph.

His doctor diagnosed his ailment as heart trouble, and advised several days of bed rest and a reduced work schedule. By the following Monday, Bell announced that he was feeling fine, and went off to Toronto on the morning train as usual, against the recommendations of his doctor. He did not look well, and several acquaintances remarked that he seemed ill. Bell scoffed at their concerns.

On Thursday morning Bell took the late morning train to Toronto, leaving Guelph at 10:20am. He suffered another weak spell as he stepped off the train in Toronto. He sat on a bench for a while, then concluded that he felt too ill to go about the business calls he had intended to make that day. He decided to catch the next train back to Guelph instead.

He sat huddled and shivering on a waiting room bench until he could board his train, which was scheduled back in Guelph at 2:50pm. He found a comfortable seat on the train, in the first class coach near the stove that in those days provided the heat in passenger cars.

For some reason, shortly after the train had paused for the station stop at Rockwood, Bell got up and began walking to the next car, which was the smoking car. By then the train was two or three miles from Guelph.

Perhaps he wanted to enjoy a cigar, or wished to talk with an acquaintance. In any case, he did not make it to the next car.

In the 1890s the vast majority of passenger cars had open platforms between cars. Passing between them was dangerous, and sometimes scary if the train was moving at speed.

As Bell stepped from one car to the next, the train passed over a rough spot in the track. The lurch threw Bell off balance, and before he could gain a solid grip on the railings he was pitched off the train and down an embankment beside the track.

No one noticed that Bell was not on the train when it made the station stop at Guelph. This was not his usual train. His driver usually picked him up with a carriage, but Bell had not intended to return to Guelph until early evening.

The fall from the train had knocked Bell unconscious. Luckily, the crew of a freight train following behind the passenger train spotted his form lying at the bottom of the embankment. The engineer threw his locomotive into emergency braking, and members of the crew slid down the embankment to investigate. They found Bell unconscious but breathing. A couple of the crew recognized him.

Somehow they managed to carry Bell up the icy embankment, and placed him in the caboose, where a hot stove soon warmed him. Bell seemed to regain consciousness, but he was barely aware of his surroundings.

At the Guelph station the crew hailed a cab, and sent Bell to his home. The station crew helped by contacting a doctor by phone and sending him to the Bell residence.

A thorough examination revealed that Bell had no broken bones or obvious internal injuries, though he had some bad gashes on his face. Bell had been wearing a heavy sealskin cap, which the doctor concluded had saved his face and head from more severe injuries. Bell’s fall had also resulted in the heal of one of his heavy boots being pulled off.

Bell slept soundly during the evening and night. He woke the next morning, still stiff and very sore, but fully conscious.

Reporters from both Guelph daily papers called at the house, and Bell was happy to give them interviews. He remembered grasping for the railing when the train lurched. His next recollection was lying in his bed as the doctor dressed his wounds and checked for broken bones and other injuries.

Though it had been a close call, Bell made light of the incident, joking about his experience. Bell’s Scottish sense of humour was very much in evidence that day, much in contrast to his usual stone-faced and dour demeanor.

Railway employees considered William Bell’s survival of the fall to be miraculous. He was 64 at the time, and in the 1890s that made him an old man.

The train had been moving at about 40 miles per hour, and Bell had landed on ground that was covered with rocks and cinders, though the snow did cushion him to some extent. The doctor advised several days of bed rest. He was not certain that Bell had not sustained internal injuries that might take time to become apparent. 

William Bell survived the incident with no long-term effects, but the scare was sufficient to induce him to pay more attention to medical advice and to pace his activities.

He retained his position with the Traders Bank for another two decades, continuing to be a regular commuter to Toronto during that time. He also remained active with the Guelph Board of Trade, and took seriously his role as a business leader of the Royal City and as one of its most enthusiastic boosters.

His original business, the Bell Organ and Piano Company remained in production until 1928, though at the end it was a pale shadow of its best years in the 1880s and 1890s.


Stephen Thorning