Rail accidents plagued 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.

Derailments and crashes have been an unfortunate part of railroading since the very beginning of that technology. Fortunately, they are quite rare. 

Wellington County has suffered its share of them during the century and a half that they have been operating here. A few locations, though, seemed to suffer more than their share of them.

The vanished hamlet of Gourock in Guelph Township, and the stretch of track north of Marden, torn up in 1989, are two locations that have seen multiple incidents. But leading them by a wide margin is the stretch of track between Guelph and Rockwood, and particularly the stretch immediately east of the Guelph city limits.

That line was built by the Grand Trunk Railway as a section of its main line from Toronto to Sarnia, and opened as far as Guelph in 1856. Specifications called for high quality work and good drainage. 

The contractors, a firm headed by Casimir Gzowski and A.T. Galt, son of the founder of the Royal City, executed the work well. In the early years it was spared the frequent derailments and crashes due to broken rails and heaving roadbed that plagued cheaply built lines.

During the 1860s there were three fatal accidents near Rockwood, though none involved trains. The track was the straightest and shortest route between Rockwood and Guelph, and it was free of the mud that made the roads of the 1860s quagmires in the spring and fall of each year.

Consequently, many people used the track as a walking trail. A bridge over a road west of Rockwood had widely spaced ties between the rails. At night, this resulted in a pitfall for pedestrians, who would step into thin air and fall to the roadway below.

Dr. Thomas Parker was a Guelph doctor who was also the MP for Centre Wellington. On Oct. 18, 1867 he was called to visit a sick child in Rockwood. He had intended to stay there the night, but changed his plans, announcing that he would walk back to Guelph that night. Aware of the dangerous bridge, which was virtually invisible in the darkness and had already resulted in the deaths of two men, he told the parents that he would take the road.

After a short distance he changed his mind due to the mud, and headed for the tracks. Neighbouring farmers found him, semi conscious and unable to move, under the bridge the next morning. Dr. Parker died from internal injuries six days later. The Grand Trunk subsequently added additional ties to the trackage on the bridge to prevent further deaths.

Less than a year later there was a major derailment farther west, near the town limits of Guelph, and near what is now Victoria Road. The locomotive of a freight train jumped the tracks and rolled down the embankment. The momentum of the train smashed a half dozen freight cars, scattering merchandise everywhere. One of the cars was filled with brown sugar, and word soon got around. Half the schoolboys in Guelph swarmed over the wreck to get some of the sugar. The astute ones took some sugar home, to placate mothers who had warned them to stay away from the wreck.

The 1868 wreck did not result in major injuries, but it did tie up what was then the Grand Trunk’s main line for two days.

A far more serious wreck occurred 11 years later, half way between Guelph and Rockwood, and within sight of Maloney’s Tavern on the York Road. Somehow, train orders got mixed up or ignored. On the afternoon of Sept. 26 an eastbound freight train, with 15 loaded cars, left Guelph at the same time as another freight train, with about 20 cars, pulled out of Rockwood westbound. A sharp curve in the track obscured vision, and the trains crews did not see danger ahead until it was too late.

The trains were travelling at about 20 miles per hour, but those were the days before air brakes, and stopping a train took more time than there was available. 

The engineers pushed their locomotives into reverse, yanked the whistle cords in desperation, then jumped, as did all the other crew members. One brave brakeman on the eastbound jumped to the tops of the cars and applied the handbrakes on each car, and barely escaped injury when the trains hit one another.

The long whistle blasts from two directions emptied the tavern, and a good half dozen men witnessed the crash. All said that the locomotives seemed to heave at one another like a couple of monstrous animals. Freight cars, made mostly of wood, crashed into one another and splintered into kindling.

About a dozen cars were destroyed, along with most of the freight, including a full carload of crockery immediately behind the westbound engine. Moments after the impact the boiler of one of the locomotives exploded with an earth-shaking boom, scattering pieces of metal in all directions. A piece of one engine, with the entire smokestack attached, sailed between 200 and 300 yards.

Bravely and somewhat foolishly, the crews and bystanders started to salvage what they could. They got most of the flour out of two boxcars, and some barrels of coal oil out of another. By then, the locomotives had set fire to the debris, and the flames soon reached another car of coal oil, shipped from Col. Nathan Higinbotham’s refinery in Guelph. Soon the conflagration outdid the best May 24 bonfire.

As the flames advanced, a crew member noticed a man wedged between the sixth and seventh cars of the eastbound train. Racing against the advancing flames, rescuers hacked away with axes to extricate him. The man was a tramp who had been noticed in Guelph the previous day. He gave his name as George Brackett of Jefferson, Iowa.

The train crews put him on an improvised stretcher and took him to Guelph. He died a few days later of massive internal injuries.

Cleanup work began before the fire had burned out. Both locomotives had been wrecked beyond repair; the Grand Trunk cannibalized their carcasses for spare parts. 

Officials put the loss that afternoon at about $75,000, equivalent to at least three million in today’s dollars. The train crews and the agents at Guelph and Rockwood had a lot of explaining to do over the mixed up orders that day.

A few decades ago pieces of crockery could still be found at the site. No doubt there are still plenty of them for those who know where to look.

A quarter century passed before there was another major crash on this line. At 1:45am on the morning of April 9, 1904, two freight trains collided head on at what was known as Trainor’s Cut, about a mile and a half east of Guelph. The cause, like that in the 1879 wreck, was a mix-up in orders.

(Next week: A flurry of train wrecks)

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Feb. 4, 2005.

Thorning Revisited