Waiting riders witnessed 1908 Moorefield train wreck

Historians of North Am­eri­can railways have noted that the first decade of the 20th century was the worst ever for accidents of all types. Daily and weekly newspapers carried gruesome tales of collisions and derailments that make us shudder today.
There were several reasons for the carnage. Tonnage and passenger traffic escalated dram­atically from the mid 1890s, straining the capacity of the railways to deal with them. Most lines, and especially the branches, were saddled with old equipment, and the track was often in a poor state of main­tenance. Everything suf­fer­ed from deferred mainten­ance. Employees frequently had inadequate training, and tac­kled their jobs with a sense of bravado that excluded all safety considerations.
The situation was especially bad on Canada’s Grand Trunk Railway, and particularly so on the dense network of branch lines operated by the company. Canadian Pacific usually has the place of dominance in history books, but in southern On­tario the Grand Trunk was by far the more important trans­­portation network.
During the 1870s and 1880s the Grand Trunk had scooped up most of the small, inde­pen­dent lines in southern Ontario, in large part to prevent them from falling into the hands of the Canadian Pacific. As a busi­ness plan that was not a wise policy. Much of the mileage prov­ed to be marginally profit­able at best.
The Grand Trunk limped along with its branches, such as those that crisscrossed Welling­ton, until upgrading could no longer be postponed. In the meantime, the company suffer­ed a continual stream com­plaints about services and faci­lities. And all the while, em­ployee morale remained low, resulting in proper procedures ignored and tasks not com­pleted properly. That resulted in even more incidents and wrecks.
One of the latter occurred on May 2, 1908. It was a Satur­day evening, shortly before 9pm, and a dozen or so pass­engers stood on the platform at the Moorefield station waiting for Number 19, the train from Guelph to Palmerston and on to Southampton. At Palmerston, the train connected with other trains to Owen Sound, Durham, and Kincardine.
A few minutes before the pass­enger train was due, a freight train appeared from the other direction. It stopped, and a brakeman threw a switch at the west end of the yard. The freight then rolled into the siding, but it was too long for the track. Three cars and the caboose remained on the main line.
Ordinarily that would not have been a problem at Moore­field. The passenger train would roll up to the station on the main line and stop. The freight would then proceed through the switch at the east end of the siding. By the time the passengers had been board­ed, and mail and express trans­ferred from the train, the rear of the freight train would have clear­ed the west switch.
At least, that is the way it was supposed to happen. When the passenger train appeared from the east, it slowed down slightly, but did not stop at the station, to the shock of the wait­ing passengers and the sta­tion agent. Witnesses estimated its speed at about 20 miles per hour.
The train consisted of a mail car, a baggage car, a smoker (combination lounge and men’s section where men could smoke pipes and cigars), and three coaches. Approaching the west switch, the locomotive side­swiped a couple of freight cars where the siding joined the main line. That pulled piping and various attachments from the side of the locomotive. It then plowed into the freight cars directly in its path. Two boxcars were reduced to kind­ling and tossed to the side of the track. The second-to-last freight car was filled with cement from the plant at Durham. Hitting that heavy load brought the train, which by now was travelling at less than 10 miles per hour, to a shud­dering halt.
The force of the impact lifted the locomotive into the air, off its wheels, and twisted one of the cylinder off the engine. When movement stop­ped it was half buried in the ditch, enveloped in a cloud of gushing steam. The car of cement went into the ditch on the other side of the track, alongside what was left of the other wrecked freight cars.
It all happened within sight of the horrified passengers, who squinted through the darkness from the station plat­form. They reported that the collision seemed to happen in slow motion. Unbelievably, there were only two injuries. The conductor, Joe Cox, had set the handbrakes on the baggage car and the smoker, and then jumped off the train. He received bad cuts to his face, and his clothing was torn to rags. The fireman, Alf Smith, also jumped, but his timing was poor. He landed on the rails in front of a tool house. Smith received a nasty gash on the top of his head, and he twisted his knee badly. The rest of the crew, including engineer Tom Benetto, of Palmerston, also jump­ed. All alighted safely.
The mail and baggage cars left the rails but remained upright. All three passenger cars and the smoker stayed on the track. Those aboard re­ceiv­ed a severe shaking, but none sustained injuries. Most of the seats in the cars were occupied. The Saturday evening train was always well patronized, and on this evening there were more passengers than usual. Many of them were farmers, returning from a big horse show in Tor­onto.
Tom Benetto claimed that the air brakes on his train had failed. He attempted to slow the train with the locomotive brake only. He had orders to meet the freight train at Moorefield, but did not know that it was too long for the siding until he saw its rear portion directly ahead. He whistled for the other crew members to set the hand brakes on the cars, but by then it was too late to avoid a collision.
When the passengers stepp­ed off the train to see what hap­pened they were astonished at the severity of the crash. Most expressed surprise that they received nothing more than a severe jostling.
Telegraph messages to Pal­m­erston brought aid in the form of a special train, which arrived about a half hour after the wreck, to pick up the passen­gers and take them on to Palm­erston and their connecting trains. In the meantime, Con­ductor Cox took charge of the situation, despite his injuries. He asked volunteers to carry Fire­man Smith to Rolls’s Hotel, where he could rest and receive medical attention.
This was one of the less disruptive of the Grand Trunk’s wrecks in Wellington County in the early 20th century. There were no serious injuries. Clean­up crews spent most of Sunday, when no trains were scheduled, picking up the pieces of the wreck­ed cars and locomotive and restoring the track.
In May of 1908 the Grand Trunk was in the midst of a program to upgrade and strengthen the track and brid­ges on its lines through Well­ington. That permitted the com­pany to use heavier loco­motives, and retire the old ones that then plied those lines. Most dated to the 1870s. In the end, that meant a dramatic reduction in train wrecks.
There were no court cases resulting from the 1908 Moore­field wreck, making it some­what unusual for that time. The Grand Trunk and other rail­ways faced a rising tide of cri­mi­nal charges, civil suits, and thorough coroner’s inquiries after 1900. That was further in­centive to improve equipment and operating procedures to avoid collisions and derail­ments.
The waiting passengers who witnessed the wreck had a mem­ory they would never forget, and a tale they could retell in later years. It is prob­able that someone took a photo­graph or two of the cleanup operations on May 3. Those shots may well be in someone’s family album, un­identified, and a mystery after almost a century.

Stephen Thorning