Man killed by train at 1899 Palmerston Orange celebration

Accounts of various 19th century July 12 celebrations by the Orange Order have appeared in this column over the years.

“The Glorious Twelfth,” as it was often called more than a century ago, marked the victory of the protestant William of Orange over Roman Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

The Orange Order in Ontario elevated the day to a major holiday in 19th century Ontario. It was a popular holiday, coming at the peak of the summer’s heat. Everyone was ready for a day off in the middle of July. Anti-Catholic feeling remained strong in Ontario through the century, and that occasionally provoked some violence and confrontations during July 12 events. Celebrating Orangemen, though, often did the most harm to themselves. Their parades and rallies invariably degenerated into booze-ups, which produced foolish and dangerous behaviour. That is what happened in Palmerston in 1899.

There were few towns, villages and hamlets that did not have an Orange lodge in the 1890s, the years when the Orange Order was at its peak in Ontario. Lodges would take turns in hosting the July celebrations, inviting their brethren to attend their festivities. In 1899, Arthur and Palmerston were hosts in north Wellington.

Arthur’s celebration featured the obligatory and traditional parade. The organizers there concentrated on speeches and addresses, featuring several out-of-town orators who delivered stirring patriotic addresses. In the eyes of most Orangemen, Protestantism, patriotism, and Canadianism were but facets of the same jewel.

Both Arthur and Palmerston supported strong Orange lodges, but the celebration in Palmerston was the larger, perhaps due to the better transportation facilities to bring people there.

The Grand Trunk Railway added extra cars to all the morning trains to Palmerston, and scheduled two extra trains: one from Southampton and one from Stratford. Altogether, trains brought about 2,000 people to Palmerston that morning. Many more came by wagon and carriage, some from a considerable distance. Altogether, the crowd easily topped the 3,000 mark, tripling the population of the town. A reception committee, supported by the Palmerston Brass Band, met all the trains at the station. The main part of the program began after the visitors had their noon dinner. Representatives of 28 visiting lodges formed up, and marched around town through the principal streets, ending at Palmerston’s park.

Sam Caswell, of Palmerston, was the chairman of the organizing committee. He offered a few welcoming remarks, and then Mayor Shields introduced the various lodges. He was followed by seven or eight representatives from visiting lodges. A contingent of Natives from a lodge on the Chippewa Saugeen Reserve near Southampton was present, and Chief Solomon addressed the crowd on their behalf. Speeches were mercifully brief, unlike some years when orators would drone on and on. Following the speakers, there was a program of music furnished by the Saugeen Indians, The Listowel Citizens Band, and the Palmerston Brass Band. A baseball game, pitting the Palmerston Wellingtons against the Harriston Browns, completed the afternoon program. It ended in a 19-9 victory for the home town favourites.

Meanwhile, many of the visitors eschewed the formal program to entertain themselves elsewhere in Palmerston. Some strolled the streets, taking advantage of Orange Day bargains offered by Main Street merchants. Others packed the five bar rooms in Palmerston – a man could work up quite a thirst on a hot July day. A hardy few never managed to get beyond the Queen’s Hotel, directly across the tracks from the station. Several hundred people wandered back and forth along Main and William Streets, while others watched the constant activity in the railway yards.

By mid afternoon the crowds grew noisier, no doubt a consequence of alcohol consumption.

About 3pm, a freight train from Stratford pulled into town. The engineer, aware of people milling about everywhere on the streets and the tracks, slowed to a crawl over the William Street crossing, and around the curve to where the Stratford line joined the Owen Sound line, just to the north of the station. Joy riders grasped the ladders on the sides of the cars for a short train ride, cheered on by spectators.

Among the unauthorized passengers was a young fellow named Bill Cleminshaw, of Britton, a small burg about four miles southwest of Listowel. He climbed onto the locomotive’s tender, then jumped off, urging others to join him for a ride. Soon he was on a flatcar, executing a drunken and stumbling dance to the applause of spectators as the train inched onward toward the Main Street crossing.

Several times he jumped off, and tried to pull others toward the train to join him on the flatcar. He would then jump back on, whistle and beckon to spectators to jump on as well. No one seemed willing to take him up on the proposal.

The train stopped at the north end of the yard, just past the Main Street crossing, and a brakeman operated a switch that would permit the train to back toward the station. As the engineer reversed the train, the cars lurched. That threw young Cleminshaw off balance. At the time he was standing on the very edge of the car, striking a pose, almost as if he was tempting fate, and still urging others to join him on the car. With the sudden lurch, he tumbled off the end of the flat car that was his stage, and fell under the wheels of the train as a couple of dozen horrified spectators looked on.

Cleminshaw was killed instantly. The brakeman frantically signalled the engineer to stop the train. The coroner was only a short distance away, enjoying the holiday atmosphere like most people in town. He was on the scene in a few minutes, and wrote down the names of witnesses and took their statements. L.M. Schell and David Hamilton, of Mount Forest were the closest witnesses. They had been directly in front of the flat car when Cleminshaw fell.

Among those standing nearby were a sister and brother. They had the gruesome task of identifying the mangled remains of their brother.

Word of the death spread quickly through the town, subduing the rowdier element in the crowd and removing the holiday atmosphere from the air. The crowds were much quieter than usual for a July 12 celebration as they boarded their trains to return home.

The coroner scheduled an inquest for that same evening. The jury was sworn in, and then taken to view the body, which was to be sent home on a train that evening, riding in a baggage car ahead of the returning July 12 celebrants. With eyewitness testimony and the obvious injuries seen by the jury, the coroner deemed that a full inquest was unnecessary. The jury met again the following week, and after a brief session, retired to consider its ruling. The verdict was Cleminshaw came to his death by losing his balance on a freight car where he should not have been riding. They attached no blame to the Grand Trunk Railway.


Stephen Thorning