Railways struggled to open lines after March storm

Last week’s column offered the first part of the story of the winter of 1908, and the storms that shut down the transporta­tion network in north Well­ington on several occasions.
The worst of those storms hit the area on March 1, a Sunday. Because there was no scheduled service that day, the Canadian Pacific and the Grand Trunk did nothing as the storm raged into the night, finally let­ting up in the early morning hours.
Early Monday morning the railways prepared to do battle. It is easiest to follow the events of the  week on a day-by-day basis.
Monday, March 2
Canadian Pacific managed to get the morning passenger train from Teeswater to Mount Forest.
A plow train left Teeswater about 5am, with two locomo­tives, and took three hours to reach Mount Forest. The pass­en­ger train followed soon afterwards. All three locomo­tives had to replenish their water tanks, but the railway’s water tower at Mount Forest was dry. Using a hose, the en­gines were able to get muni­cipal water from a pipe at the Mount Forest Carriage Factory.
After pausing for refresh­ments, the plow train crew pushed on toward Arthur, but got stuck a short distance from Mount Forest. A couple of men came back for help, and re­cruited a gang of railroaders and volunteers, all armed with shovels. They climbed aboard the locomotive from the pass­enger train. With a third loco­motive, and a big gang to shov­el the train out when it got stuck, they managed to work their way to Kenilworth by dark. They left the plow there, and backed up the locomotives to Mount Forest for the night. It had taken about eight hours to open the line between Mount Forest and Kenilworth.
Canadian Pacific, mean­while, had put up its passengers in the town’s hotels.
At Orangeville, the east end of the branch, officials had as­signed all the men available to opening the line to Owen Sound. By nightfall they had that track open. The weather was mild, hovering around the freezing point, and that made the snow wet and sticky.
Palmerston, the Grand Trunk’s major junction point, was isolated from outside con­tact that morning. Crews there concentrated their efforts on opening the lines to Stratford and Fergus-Guelph, and had those lines open by late after­noon.
In the country, most farmers spent the day punching open­ings through drifts so they might get horse-drawn cutters through and into town. Often they detoured into adjoining fields.
Tuesday, March 3
After a good night’s rest, the crew at Mount Forest, number­ing perhaps 20 railroaders and an equal number of casual labourers and novelty-seeking volunteers, set off in the three locomotives to resume their work at Kenilworth. The drifts were the highest many of them had ever seen. With high banks on either side of the track, there was nowhere to push the new snow. Shovelling by hand, the crew opened barely two miles of track that day.
At Orangeville, officials re­deployed their efforts to the line to Mount Forest and Tees­water. They sent two heavy freight locomotives, pushing a plow and pulling a coach filled with shovellers. That train made respectable progress, although the shovellers were needed to dig out the train near Waldemar, and again at the heavy drifts either side of Grand Valley. They reached Arthur mid afternoon, taking more than six hours to come from Orangeville.
After an ample meal, the crew decided to attack the block­age in the Kenilworth area from the south side. The Arthur station telegraphed Ken­ilworth, requesting that the other crew retreat to the siding. The plow train leaving Arthur intended to blast right through.
It seemed like a good idea at the time, but their plow and locomotives wedged solidly into a big drift not far from Arthur on the first attempt. They managed to dig out and back up to Arthur for the night. There was still almost four miles of unopened track to deal with.
At the Grand Trunk’s termi­nal in Palmerston, a plow pushed by two locomotives de­parted early in the morning headed for Mount Forest and Durham. Nothing more was heard from the train that day.
Postal officials, squirming after complaints regarding ser­vice disruptions earlier in the winter, arranged for special runs, using cutters, from Pal­mer­ston and Durham. The cut­ters rendezvoused at the Mount Forest post office, exchanged mail bags, and returned home.
Wednesday, March 4
The Grand Trunk’s plow train from Palmerston, stranded overnight in the wilds of Arthur Township, limped into Mount Forest early in the morning, the locomotives alarmingly low on water. Farmers near the line had helped to dig the train out of a big drift, and had given the crew hot meals and warm beds overnight.
After a brief stop in Mount Forest, the train proceeded north to Durham, returning lat­er in the day to clear sidings and push aside any further drift­ing. By that evening, the crew was back at home in Pal­merston.
The two Canadian Pacific crews mopped up the last four miles of the troublesome stretch between Kenilworth and Arthur. By that evening they were all at Mount Forest for a meal and to spend the night there before returning to their home terminals. Both rail­ways announced that regular service would commence again the following morning.
Thursday, March 5
The Grand Trunk and Canadian Pacific sent out their morning trains on schedule. The CP run from Orangeville was soon running behind, slowed by very heavy express and mail volumes, and by stret­ches of track that had partially blown in again overnight. The train reached Mount Forest shortly after noon, a little more than an hour late. If any railway buffs were at the station they would have enjoyed quite a sight: with the plow specials still at the station, and a couple of freight trains, there were eight locomotives at the station at one point. Several were wait­ing to replenish their water tanks from the hose at the carriage factory.
The Grand Trunk was able to operate its trains on schedule that day on its lines radiating from Palmerston, but Canadian Pacific encountered more trou­ble when a plow derailed east of Grand Valley. That shut things down again until late in the evening. Snow had started falling again and drifting, and both railways were determined to stay on top of the situation.
Friday, March 6
The winds and blowing snow that started the previous day picked up overnight. That caused fresh problems with drifts and frozen switches for the morning trains. The engi­neer of the morning Grand Trunk train from Durham to Palmerston turned back when he saw a bad drift ahead. The train waited at Durham until a plow arrived from Palmerston later in the day.
On the Canadian Pacific Orangeville-to-Teeswater line, a snow plow preceded both the eastbound and westbound trains. They met at Mount For­est.
Saturday, March 7
With plow trains patrolling the lines all day, both railways managed to keep their lines open, although there was no attempt to adhere to the regular schedules. By night, the worst of the storm was over. Both the railways and the public hoped that they had seen the end of the winter of 1908.
As it turned out, that was the last of the major storms that winter. Canadian Pacific, though, was taking no chances. The division superintendent got his hands on a rotary snow­plow. It was not needed for fresh snowfalls, but it proved very useful in widening the path cut through snowbanks by the regular plow. The rotary spent several days that week clean­ing up some of the drifts and blowing the snow far away from the tracks.That winter of 1908 was cer­tainly a memorable one, both for residents of Wellington and for the accountants at the railways dealing with the huge costs of the storms. And it is likely that the oldtimers are right: winters many years ago, at least some of them, were far worse than those we have had in more recent years.  

Stephen Thorning