Joyriding railroaders narrowly avoided jail in 1913

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 a 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 joy ride, 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 joy ride, 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 joy ride was an “inside” job, and that there was a coverup 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 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 joy ride, 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.


Stephen Thorning