Knuckles and know-how on a routine train trip in 1923

I like to indulge my fascination with railways several times per year in this column.

Though little trackage remains in the county today, the history of Wellington County is rich with railway lore, beginning with various proposed lines in the late 1830s until the massive line shutdowns in the latter part of the 20th century.

Many lines were built at great costs to local municipalities, and served important economic roles over the decades. Others less so. A prime example of the latter is the line constructed between Linwood and Listowel. It was an example of late construction, opening for service in the summer of 1908. And it was one of the first to close, ending service in March 1939, failing to meet 31 years of service by a couple of months.

The line served the southwestern portions of Peel and Maryborough Townships. Originally it was planned as part of a line that would extend to Collingwood and cross a couple of other Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) lines along that route. At Linwood  it would be a junction with the Guelph-to-Goderich line completed in 1907, and another contemplated line to Stratford

By the time construction began, the CPR had second thoughts about the planned new lines. Only the 16-mile section was built between Linwood and Listowel, with stations at Tralee and Dorking. That track involved no major bridges or excavation, and was built to very light standards as a minor branch line. Even so, it is likely that the Listowel line required the use of red ink in the CPR ledgers from beginning to end.

The only major centre on the line, Listowel, had been served with rail service for decades. The other stations, at minor hamlets, were convenient for a number of farmers, but the area was too small to generate much traffic. Still, the line and its employees quickly became trusted friends to the locals. Other than that, there were few incidents or developments to interest rail historians.

On one occasion, though, the line attracted widespread, though fleeting fame. That happened on Nov. 29, 1923. At one time there had been a direct train between Listowel and Guelph Junction, south of Guelph, but in the 1920s the primary service on the line consisted of a locomotive stationed at Listowel, which made two daily round trips to Linwood to connect with trains running to and from Goderich.

The train consisted of a sparsely-patronized old day coach and a baggage car which did a small but respectable business carrying express and freight shipments. Occasionally the train would be augmented by a freight car or two behind the locomotive.

The first train each day left Listowel at 6:50 in the morning, and took a leisurely 45 minutes to run the 16 miles to Linwood for a connection with the morning train from Goderich to Toronto. The crew then had a wait of almost three-and-a-half hours for the arrival of the morning train to Goderich.

It was a tedious wait for the crew. Some would spend it discretely nursing a bottle or playing cards. Others would read or discuss various matters with other crew members.

On Nov. 29 the discussion seems to have degenerated into an argument between the fireman and the engineer. The dispute did not get resolved as train time approached. The argument continued in the locomotive cab, and soon degenerated into fisticuffs.

The fireman was a hot-headed Scotsman, who had for several years been a regular winner whenever Scottish sports events were staged in the area. He was small and wiry, but excelled at caber-tossing, shot put and hammer throwing. In the cab he succeeded in throwing a few good punches at the engineer, managing to crack a couple of ribs.

The engineer was an older man, and carried considerable excess weight. Still he was a tough opponent. He went down a couple of times, but always managed to regain his footing. As they fought, the locomotive and train continued on their trip. The few passengers in the coach and the staff in the baggage car were unaware of events up ahead until the train started slowing down below its already glacial pace. The fire was dying down and steam pressure dropped, the fireman being otherwise occupied.

Near the station at Dorking the train stopped. By then the engineer had fallen to a poor second in the contest. Other crew members came up to the locomotive from the coach and baggage cars, and found the engineer on the floor of the cab, moaning but still uttering threats. For his part, the fireman was more aggressive than ever, challenging anyone present to continue the fight with him.

Sturdy arms eventually succeeded in lifting up the engineer and conveying him to the baggage car, where he rested on a folding cot. It took the efforts of three strong men to subdue the fireman. They strong-armed him into the coach, and the conductor, who had some locomotive experience earlier in his career, took the throttle for the rest of the trip to Goderich. Even with the generous schedule, the train arrived in Listowel an hour late.

A train that far off schedule was most unusual, and soon was a subject for comment and speculation in Listowel. The editor of the Listowel Banner quickly caught the scent. Over the next couple of days the story appeared in various versions in daily papers all over the province, and the following week in dozens of weekly papers.

The tale travelled even more quickly on the railway’s gossip network. The division superintendent took an immediate interest, and was on the first train the next morning to get to the bottom of things.

Minutes after the superintendent’s arrival the fireman learned he had been suspended without pay, and that he would be on the carpet for a full hearing, where officials would determine whether he should lose his job. Fighting was one thing, but abandoning duties in the locomotive had put the train and railway property in peril, and had potentially threatened life and limb in the passenger car. That might have resulted in the Canadian Pacific’s greatest fears: lawsuits and more bad publicity.

For his part, the fireman was a popular man with both the public along the route and with fellow employees. The fight had been a most unusual act. He had more than 25 years of service with the railway. He was normally very friendly, and devoted hours of his own time to maintaining and polishing the locomotive when it laid over in Listowel. People there sent messages to the divisional offices on his behalf. Everyone wanted him re-instated and wielding his shovel in the locomotive cab.

The matter dragged on for some time, during which the engineer recovered from his scrapes and bruises, and his cracked ribs mended. The fireman eventually returned to his job as well, following a tense hearing, a severe dressing down from superiors, and the chalking up of demerit points against his name.

The story became a well-remembered one along the Listowel line, and soon formed a part of railway lore among CPR employees and eventually among retirees in southern Ontario. By then there was a much greater appreciation of the tale. It is still remembered 90 years later, and almost 75 years after the line itself was consigned to history.


Stephen Thorning