Joyriding railroaders narrowly avoided jail in 1913

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.


The Canadian Pacific station at Guelph Junction near Campbellville, about 14 miles southeast of Guelph, was quite familiar to travellers.

Today the station building is but a memory, and the spot is best known as the storage location for some GO transit trains. Decades ago it was a much livelier place.

Though originating traffic there was minuscule, Guelph Junction was a busy spot for traffic, with a line to Guelph and Goderich heading to the northwest and another to Hamilton to the south, both connecting to the Toronto-to-Windsor main line.

Passengers changed trains there, often enjoying a meal at the station restaurant. A small yard handled freight cars moving from one line to another.

In 1913, Hugh J. Craig was the station agent. On April 20 of that year, a Sunday, he was lounging around the station with a pal, one of the dispatchers from the Canadian Pacific’s London office.

About mid afternoon, well fortified after sampling a bottle of whiskey for a couple of hours, they decided that it was imperative that they go to Guelph for some soon-forgotten reason. By then two or three more off-work employees had joined them.

There were no Sunday passenger trains on the Canadian Pacific line to Guelph in 1913, but the two men saw a suitable alternative: a freight locomotive was parked on a siding beside the station, and the group quickly concluded that it would suit their purposes.

Craig was sufficiently astute to telegraph to the Guelph station to make sure there was no train on the line between the two stations. Although there were no passenger trains that day, the railway often ran special freight trains on the Sabbath.

Residents along the line afterward reported that the locomotive, running in reverse, passed through Moffatt, Corwhin and Arkell at a much higher speed than was usual for traffic on the line.

The spectators noted that there were four or five men in the cab. The locomotive got as far as the Guelph station with no problem.

A couple of hours later the men made their return trip, at a more moderate speed, according to those who saw the locomotive.

All went well until they neared the small yard at Guelph Junction. As the locomotive rounded the last curve the men noticed that they were headed into the path of another locomotive. They shut off the steam and applied the brakes, but it was too late.

The locomotives hit head on, though at low speed. Nevertheless, the force was sufficient to bounce one of the locomotives into the air. When the dust settled, both locomotives were off the track, along with three or four freight cars.

Slightly bruised and banged up, the men quickly left the scene. No one on either locomotive suffered injuries.

Those were the bare facts of the incident. Word that a locomotive had been taken by parties unknown, and then driven into another locomotive, soon spread along the line. By morning senior officials were involved, and they were not amused in the slightest.

Canadian Pacific police were on the case at once, assisted by a couple of provincial constables.

As was the habit of railwaymen, those involved in the incident closed ranks, feigning ignorance of the whole affair. The railway itself released very little information, peppering their statements with phrases such as “a daring thief,” “brazen daylight raid,” and best of all, “one of the most daring raids in railroad history.”

Official statements also cast doubt on the thief’s knowledge of locomotives and railway practices. That certainly hurt the feelings of the men on the joyride, who were all career railroaders.

The paucity of information led to confusion among reporters, resulting in conflicting and garbled published accounts of what actually happened.

Recognizing that the investigation would be more intense than they expected, the men persuaded Orville Fletcher, the night watchman at Guelph Junction, to admit that he was moving the locomotive, after its return to Guelph Junction, to allow the other locomotive to complete its switching chores. It got out of his control, he stated, resulting in the unfortunate crash.

It was a feeble explanation, and the investigators realized at once that it was nonsense. By then, the Monday afternoon following the joyride, they were aware that someone at the Guelph Junction station had telegraphed to Guelph to be sure the line was clear. They now realized that the joyride was an “inside” job, and that there was a cover-up involving at least several employees.

With a little pressure on a couple of the men the whole story began to unravel. On Monday night Provincial Detectives C.J. Holden of London and William Frost of Toronto arrested Hugh Craig and Orville Fletcher on charges of theft and damage to property. As the crime originated in Halton County, he lodged them in the jail at Milton.

The next day they appeared before Magistrate Dice. Detective Holden and the railway police explained to the magistrate that these were very serious crimes, endangering both the public and the railway. Both men entered pleas of not guilty. Dice set bail at $5,000 cash each, a huge amount for that time, and scheduled the trial for the next quarter sessions, with a preliminary hearing on April 28.

Fletcher’s friends pooled resources, and sprung him from jail the next afternoon. Craig’s father-in-law raised his bail a day later. After considering the circumstances, Orville Fletcher made a deal with the crown attorney. He spilled the whole story, and in return the crown attorney dropped all charges against him. Fletcher was certainly not the ringleader of the joyride, and he may not even have ridden the locomotive.

With the additional information, detectives Frost and Holden rounded up the rest of the culprits, but laid charges only against Craig’s friend, the London dispatcher. As the ring of silence collapsed, Hugh Craig and his friends realized that protesting their innocence would be futile. They did claim one thing in their defence: they said the locomotive was running low on water, and that they had run faster than they should have to get to the water tank at Guelph Junction.

Because of the speed, they could not avoid hitting the other locomotive, and they deeply regretted any damage to Canadian Pacific property.

Craig and his friend chose trial by judge alone, and then changed their pleas to guilty. With the facts, or at least most of them, now on the table, Judge Elliot of Halton County evaluated the situation. He delivered long and stern lectures to both men, and then released them both with suspended sentences.

The two men may have sighed in relief after that Milton court date, but their troubles were far from over. They still had to face the division superintendent, the same one who looked so sternly at the escapade a week earlier. His comments were not recorded for posterity; they would certainly make interesting reading.

As well, there is no public record of the disciplinary action dished out to all those involved in the incident. As the instigator, Hugh Craig would certainly have been demoted, and perhaps exiled to a remote depot, if not dismissed from the railway.

Lesser penalties would go to the others, but in the rigid railway world of a century ago, none would escape the wrath of the division superintendent.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Aug. 7, 2009.


Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015