More railway mishaps on Guelph-Rockwood line

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.

Last week’s column noted the mishaps and train wrecks on the railway between Guelph and Rockwood, a stretch of track that has seen far more than its share of accidents over the past century and a half. 

This week’s column covers some of the incidents in the 20th century. 

Following the big wreck of 1879, there were no major accidents on the Grand Trunk’s line east of Guelph until 1904. That year fate struck with a vengeance. By then the line had been in service almost a half century. Railway officials had skimped on maintenance in the 1880s and 1890s. The consequences of that policy hit home after 1900, when traffic on the line increased significantly. Unfortunately, neither the railway nor its undertrained and demoralized employees could cope with it. 

The year of 1904 got off to a bad start on Jan. 2. Due to a mixup in hand signals, a freight train backed into another near the Carden St. passenger station. No one was hurt, but the incident demolished several old wooden boxcars, which were smashed into kindling. 

Four days later, a westbound freight train, pulled by two older locomotives, was slowing down as it approached Allan’s Bridge in downtown Guelph. A short distance from the bridge, a wheel on one of the freight cars shattered when the engineer applied the brakes. The car derailed, as did two cars following. 

Had the accident occurred a few seconds later, when the train was on the bridge, there would surely have been a major disaster. As it was, Grand Trunk salvage crews worked for 30 hours to reopen the line. In the meantime, traffic had to be rerouted. 

Those two incidents were preludes to the major wreck of 1904, at Trainor’s Cut, about two miles east of the Guelph station. At 1:45am on Apr. 9, two freight trains collided head on, claiming the lives of two crew members and severely injuring two others. 

The eastbound train, with about 25 cars, most of them empty boxcars, had left Toronto at 4pm the previous day. At 1:30am they crew received permission at Rockwood to proceed to Guelph. The slow progress of that train on the single track line was due to a steady procession of eastbound freight trains. At every station it took the siding to let the other trains pass. Anxious to get to their home base of Stratford, the crew had the train rolling toward Guelph at about 40 miles per hour. 

The eastbound train, with Engineer Blanchard at the throttle, passed by the Guelph station. Its crew noted that the signal indicated that the line was clear beyond the station to Rockwood. Just east of Guelph, Blanchard spotted the headlight of the approaching westbound, perhaps 300 feet in front of him. His train was travelling at about 20 miles per hour. At once he threw on the brakes, pushed the locomotive into reverse, and with another crew member, jumped out the side of the engine. The fireman, shovelling coal from the back of the tender, could not get out in time, and was badly injured. 

The trains collided with an impact speed of more than 50 miles per hour. Both locomotives turned sideways with the impact, and gave the appearance of being welded together. The fireman and brakeman of the eastbound were killed instantly when the tender of the locomotive crumbled against the locomotive. 

The collision occurred in a deep cutting, which was partially obscured by curves on both sides, resulting in poor visibility. The locomotives came to rest on the north embankment, with the wrecked freight cars piled on top of them, forming a pile of debris 30 feet high. 

Rescue crews, with Dr. O’Reilly in attendance, rushed the injured men to Guelph General Hospital. By 6am, work trains from Stratford and Toronto were on the scene, untangling the mess with their huge cranes. While they worked, the coroner convened an inquest that very afternoon. 

A huge crowd packed Guelph city hall for the session. There had been a dramatic increase in railway accidents everywhere in recent years, and the public, believing that the railways operated with a careless and cavalier attitude to both the public and their own employees, was anxious to see the railways, and particularly the Grand Trunk, brought to account. 

The first witness was Richard McKinley, who was the night operator at the GTR’s Guelph passenger station, located on Carden St. just west of Allan’s bridge. The coroner’s jury was astonished at his working conditions. McKinley was only 19, and had two years experience as a telegrapher. He had been the sole employee on the 8pm to 8am shift at the station for almost a year. McKinley told the jury that he had to provide instructions to at least eight freight trains on his shift, and as many as 20. As well, there were a couple of express trains, and a fast overnight passenger train to Chicago. He was responsible for copying instructions from the Stratford dispatcher in Morse code and telephone, keeping track of the various trains on the line, setting signals for passing trains, and passing instructions up to the crews of passing trains. He readily admitted that it was frequently impossible to attend to all his duties at the same time. 

McKinley testified that earlier on the fateful evening there had been a traffic jam at the GTR’s Guelph Junction station, located at the freight yards just west of Alma St. in Guelph, with a half dozen freight trains waiting for departure. 

While he was on the phone about 1:30am, McKinley watched a train roll by slowly. Procedure required the train to stop, and the conductor to come into the office for further orders. The train did not stop. 

With the heavy traffic, and the casual attitude to proper procedure, everyone involved–the Stratford dispatcher, the operators at Rockwood and Guelph Junction, and McKinley–lost track of what train was where on the line. At 1:35am, thinking the line to Rockwood was clear, the dispatcher gave McKinley permission to let Blanchard’s eastbound train pass. McKinley set the signal accordingly, with fatal results less than 10 minutes later. 

The inquest resumed the following Monday evening, when Stratford dispatcher E.T. Murphy, the Grand Trunk’s trainmaster, and the Rockwood night operator testified. There is an old saying among railway workers that the art of railroading consists of deflecting blame. That is precisely what each of the witnesses tried to do. 

The coroner’s jury convened several more times, and tried to unravel the contradictory evidence of the various employees. Most tried to point their finger at the young and naive Richard McKinley, but it was obvious that others were at least equally responsible. As well, it was obvious to the jury that McKinley could not do his job single handedly: he could not be at his desk and on the platform simultaneously. 

Meanwhile, the Grand Trunk’s lawyers reached out-of-court settlements with the families of the deceased employees. Both were young and unmarried. With neither grieving widows or young children to support, the settlements were small. 

The following summer, another fatality occurred on the line, this time a passenger. Each summer the Grand Trunk did a large business with special excursion trains, most for outings by factory employees and lodges. Guelph’s largest employer those days, the Bell Piano and Organ Co., chartered a train on an August Saturday every summer for an outing for its employees. 

For the 1905 outing, the GTR provided a train of 12 cars, all of them antiques, with open platforms at each end, and dating back to the late 1870s. More than 1,000 people pilled onto the train, which had seating for less than 700. Passengers stood or sat in aisles. A few took refuge on the rear platform. Regulations strictly forbid passengers from riding on the platforms, but the train crew either did not know or did not care about the group. 

As the train proceeded east toward Rockwood, the platform became increasingly uncomfortable to ride on. The long train of old cars lurched and swayed. There was no railing on the side, and at the rear, a thin chain linked two flimsy sections of railing. An 18-year-old apprentice at the Bell factory leaned against the chain. About three miles est of Guelph, a severe jerk of the car caused the chain to snap. The young man fell over backward, striking his head on a rail with fatal results. 

The fatality deflated the joyful atmosphere of the excursion. The young man, though a new employee, had been extremely popular. The coroner’s inquest attracted much interest, largely because a passenger had died. The jury was loud in its denunciation of  the Grand Trunk, for providing antiquated equipment, and not enough of it, for the excursion. 

As in the April wreck, it was obvious to the jury that employees did not take the time and effort to observe and enforce the railway’s own rules and regulations. No one other than employees should have been on the platform of the rear car, and the chain across the middle of the railing should have been solid and solidly secured. 

During the winter of 1905-1906, the Grand Trunk undertook some upgrading of its line from Toronto through Rockwood to Guelph. One of the big projects was a new deck for Allan’s bridge to permit the use of heavier locomotives on the line. The new bridge used the original limestone abutments and piers, with a new steel girder deck on top. On Jan. 28, 1906, a workman on the riveting crew was struck on the back by the a piece of equipment. The blow knocked him off the bridge, and he fell 20 feet to the pedestrian bridge below. Miraculously, he suffered only a broken arm. Public outrage was muted by the fact that the injured man’s father was employed as a middle manager by the Grand Trunk. 

Year by year, the public outcry over wrecks and accidents on the Grand Trunk grew louder. After the derailment of a passenger train on the ill-fated Rockwood-Guelph line, the uproar reached its zenith in 1907. 

(Next week: more accidents on the Rockwood to Guelph line.) 

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Feb. 11, 2005.

Thorning Revisited