Stray Fergus cow derailed freight train in 1893

When livestock confronts loco­motives the results are invariably a disaster for both. The half-mile stretch of Grand Trunk track immediately north­west of Fergus, on the line to Alma and Palmerston, saw three such face-offs in the dec­ades either side of 1900. The first of those occurred 117 years ago, in 1891.

In those years, the Grand Trunk liked to send out early morning freight trains from Pal­merston in all directions each day, before the rush of morning passenger trains. The freights would leave the bust­ling yards at Palmerston be­tween 4 and 6am. The one south to Guelph was scheduled into Fergus about 9am, where it would wait until the passenger train following it arrived and then preceded it on to Guelph.

On the morning of Saturday, Sept. 12, 1891, the southbound freight approached Fergus on what had been a routine run from Palmerston. Engineer Jim Sloan had slowed down to about five miles per hour as the train approached the Garafraxa Street crossing. Immediately past the street was the crossing of the Canadian Pacific’s Elora Branch, then a 130-degree curve on a slight downgrade as the track approached the Fer­gus Grand Trunk station.

Air brakes were not in general use in 1891. The brakes on each of the train’s 17 cars had to be set by hand. Brakemen Joe Brennan and Alex Watson were on top of the train turning down the brakes on each car as the locomotive reached Garafraxa Street.

Engineer Sloan suddenly spotted a cow wandering into the path of his train. He could do nothing to stop in time. The locomotive’s cowcatcher struck the beast, and the carcass draped across the front of the locomotive, its legs dragging along the track. When the locomotive reached the CPR crossing the cow’s feet became entangled in the track work. That pulled it down onto the tracks. The front wheels of the locomotive passed over the animal, but came down on the ballast, rather than on the rails.

The derailed locomotive con­tinued to roll along the ties, and then into the soft earth in the ditch alongside the track. The tender, about three-quart­ers filled with coal, followed the locomotive off the rails, as did the first four freight cars.

Seeing that the locomotive was about to tip over, fireman Charley Laing jumped. His timing could not have been worse.

As he hit the ground the overturned tender landed on top of him. He died instantly. Engineer Sloan jumped out the other side, and miraculously missed being injured by a boxcar that came to rest above him. Brakeman Joe Brennan also escaped injury. When he saw that the train was off the track he crouched down on top of a boxcar, grasping the wooden walkway, before it began to overturn. When the dust had settled he was stand­ing on top of the wreckage, with no memory of precisely what had happened to him.

The whole affair had been witnessed by Jim Sanderson, the operator who was on duty that morning at the tower that controlled the signals at the crossing of the two railway lines. He reported that the wreck seemed to occur in slow motion. The locomotive came to rest deeply buried in the soft earth in the ditch.

Four of the train’s freight cars were off the track, and two of them were badly smashed. Considering that the train had been travelling at five miles per hour at best, it was certainly a spectacular smash up.

Sanderson immediately in­formed the Fergus Station staff, and made certain that the signal was set to prevent the passen­ger train that was following the freight from plowing into the wreckage.

Because the line was an im­portant one, Grand Trunk officials wanted to have it back in service as quickly as possi­ble. They dispatched wrecking crews from Stratford and Pal­merston to attack the wreckage from both directions.

In order to maintain passen­ger traffic during the day, the morning northbound train went as far as Fergus and exchanged mail and passengers with the stranded southbound train, which then returned to Pal­merston, backing up all the way. The train from Guelph did the same, arriving in Guelph about 2pm. That meant the passengers were delayed about four hours.

By mid-afternoon the two wrecking trains were on the site and at work. In a little over an hour, at 4pm, they had the Canadian Pacific track open, allowing the morning train to complete its run to Elora.

By 8pm, the crews had the Grand Trunk track back in service, but the wreckage still littered the ground either side of the line. That allowed the evening passenger trains to pass through.

The wrecking crews worked until 11pm that night, and was back on the job early the next morning, to the strong disap­proval of those who upheld the sanctity of the Sabbath. Pulling the locomotive out of the mud was the biggest chore, but by 4pm, using two cranes, they had the wrecked engine on a flatcar and the rest of the debris cleaned up. The crew was sur­prised that the locomotive did not seem to be badly damaged.

The deceased fireman, Charl­es Laing, was only 32 years old. He lived at Palmer­ston with his wife and two young children. The Fergus cor­oner, Dr. Johnson, was away at St. Thomas, at a weekend encampment with the volunteer militia. In his place, Dr. Arthur Paget, of Elora, examined the body, and then released it to be taken back to Palmerston. He said that an inquest was quite unnecessary. An hour later the Crown Attorney, Henry Peter­son, telegraphed from Guelph that he was overruling Dr. Pag­et, and he demanded an inquest.

The grieving Mrs. Laing decided that her husband would be buried at his boyhood home in St. George. The coroner’s jury viewed the body in the bag­gage car when the south­bound train passed through Fergus on Sept. 14, and then adjourned to an upper room at the Dominion Hotel, across the street from the station, to hear the evidence. There was a final evening session at the Fergus council chamber.

In all, 11 witnesses gave evi­dence. Crown Attorney Pet-erson came up from Guelph, and took the lead in ques­tioning the witnesses. Much of the discussion centred on the matter of cattle wandering on streets. The Fergus bylaw was found to be at fault; it outlawed cattle running at large only at night.

The cow that had caused the wreck was owned by Stephen Hadfield, a section man on the Canadian Pacific line, who liv­ed near the scene. He had been in the habit of allowing the cow to wander at will around the neighbourhood. Several wit­nes­ses believed that, had the train been travelling faster, the cow would have been tossed to the side of the track by the im­pact.

The jury reached a verdict in a few minutes. They found that Laing’s death was an un­foreseeable accident. They recom­mended that the Grand Trunk post signs to the effect that cattle were not to be on public roads unattended within a half-mile of railway cross­ings, and that railway employ­ees be instructed to lay com­plaints under the law. There was no criticism of Hadfield for not keeping his cow teth­ered.

The final recommendation resurrected an old issue. The jury urged the Grand Trunk to proceed with an underpass to take St. George Street under the Grand Trunk tracks. Such an underpass had been promised when the line was built 21 years earlier, but no action as ever taken on it. The crossing was in no way connected with the wreck near Garafraxa Street.

The jury’s recommen­da­tions went unheeded, and there were many other derailments caused by livestock on the track, including a couple within a half mile of the 1891 wreck.



Stephen Thorning