Winter of 1903-04 seemed to have no ending

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 described the winter of 1903-04 – probably the worst in Wellington’s history – up to the first week of February 1904, when the county suffered a week of record breaking low temperatures.

The cold spell broke a little on Feb. 14, only to welcome, if that is the correct word, another blizzard. That closed the Grand Trunk’s lines in north Wellington yet again. Trains did run on the Palmerston-Durham line, but there were no connections to the south.

Meanwhile the shortage of coal that began at the end of December continued. Farmers took advantage of the situation, and drew loads of firewood into the towns and villages. They could demand almost any price they wanted. Otherwise, business remained virtually at a standstill.

By the end of February people started to joke about the weather as a method of coping. One merchant said that snow is like money – it is piled up in banks. A farmer said no one need complain of the climate in north Wellington: “I have been ploughing all winter.”

Officials in Toronto, where weather data had been kept since 1830, announced that February of 1904 was the fourth coldest month ever recorded there, exceeded only by January of 1857, February of 1875, and February of 1885.

The next snowstorm arrived on March 2. By then, everyone had lost count of the number that winter. At least the temperatures were a little warmer.

On the railways, though, the difficulties continued. The Grand Trunk sent a plow with three locomotives from Palmerston on March 2 to open the line to Durham. The outfit took nine hours to get to Holstein. Then it derailed–the plow and a locomotive in the field on one side of the track, and another locomotive on the opposite side.

A westbound Canadian Pacific passenger train from Orangeville got as far as Mount Forest, where it was stranded for four days. The CPR put the passengers up at the Coyne House.

During the month of March 1904 another storm swept through the area every five or six days. By then the snow from the early storms of the season had compressed and hardened. In places, the snowbanks were sufficiently hardened to support horses. Along railway tracks, the piled snow at the sides of the tracks hardened into ice, leaving no place to plow the new snow as it fell. Railway plows left the tracks on occasions too numerous to count. Both the Grand Trunk and Canadian Pacific abandoned any pretense of following timetables. They sent trains through whenever they could.

Conditions were a trial for anyone attempting to travel. A couple of people spent 10 days returning to Mount Forest from Peterborough. Those in north Wellington who were in a hurry hired sleighs and cutters to get them to either Palmerston or Orangeville, where they waited until the railways were able to send a train south.

Wellington North MP James McMullen was one of them. He hired a cutter to take him from Mount Forest to Palmerston, where he got train connections that put him in Ottawa for the opening of the 1904 session of parliament.

Not all the storms of March 1904 brought a lot of new snow, but strong winds did an excellent job of piling the loose snow into ever higher drifts, and filled in railway embankments.

That is what happened on March 10. Neither the CPR no the Grand Trunk managed to get all their lines opened at the same time. On March 11, the post office rented a sleigh to take the mail west from Orangeville to Arthur, Mount Forest and Harriston. That trip took three days, and the mail it carried included Toronto newspapers dated March 1.

Anyone looking for casual work could find it easily that month. The Grand Trunk hired a crew of 80 in the Durham area – mostly young farm men – and they began working south to Mount Forest, literally digging the line out by hand, using broadaxes and shovels. Another crew got the GTR line opened from Palmerston to Mount Forest on March 13. On the Canadian Pacific lines, a few crews of volunteers helped out. Residents of the north had become so frustrated with the winter that they gladly worked for nothing to get the lines open. The special crews put in full days on Sundays, but few of the devout raised a protest. This was a genuine emergency.

Fresh storms on March 14 erased some gains, but the crews made good progress during the succeeding days. The biggest work crew, with 140 men, was the one on the CPR, working east from Wingham.

By March 15 they had hacked the line out to a point two miles east of Harriston. With assistance from other crews working from Mount Forest and Arthur, they had the CPR branch open on March 17.

On the Grand Trunk south of Palmerston there were problems as well. The line to Guelph was closed for almost a week, due partially to derailed snow plows. Service resumed on March 17.

Mount Forest received some bad publicity when the hotels in that town refused accommodation to the work crew on the CPR. The gang, then numbering about 125, had to be taken back to Harriston, a move that resulted in several hours of lost working time. A few days later, that crew was at work between Mount Forest and Arthur. New hires, from amongst neighbouring farmers, had swelled its ranks to more than 300. Meanwhile, service resumed on the CPR between Mount Forest and Teeswater. A locomotive had been trapped on the line, and with the aid of coal borrowed from the Grand Trunk, service resumed.

The major disruptions to transportation had many consequences. The priority of the railways was on mail and passenger service. Freight shipments piled up everywhere. Merchants waited for their spring inventories, and some stores ran very low on stock. Cattle buyers and grain dealers suffered greatly.

There were virtually no shipments of cattle in Wellington County during the first three months of 1904. Elevators bulged with unshipped grain. In Mount Forest, Martin Bros. managed to grind about 1,000 bushels of wheat into flour each day, but they ran out of flour sacks on March 14.

During the latter days of March 1904 the special work crews hired by the railways continued their work, frustrated on several occasions by more snow and storms.

On March 27 a blizzard dumped another six inches of snow on Wellington, and winds soon piled it into new drifts. The next day, the wind shifted to the east, and a severe thunderstorm knocked out telegraph and telephone lines.

But by then, the worst was over. After March 28 the trains on all lines in Wellington operated on or close to their published schedules.

The weather warmed up in the second week of April, but the huge accumulation of snow took a long time to melt. The railways coped well with the new conditions, but the roads of Wellington became quagmires of mud, water, and melting ice. In Arthur township, crews working on county roads used disk harrows to break up and smooth the deep ruts in the ice and snow.

But winter wasn’t over yet. A late blizzard blew through on April 15, dumping three inches of snow in the north, and even more in some parts of south Wellington.

Nine days later, a major rain storm further frustrated road travellers and farmers, who by then were itching to commence spring cultivation.

A few farmers did manage to get on the land during the last week of April. Others waited another two weeks for their land to dry up.

There were many places in Wellington, in shady areas of woodlots, where snow banks still could be found as late as May 10.

That spring, no one in Wellington would disagree that they had survived the worst winter in the history of the county.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Jan. 14, 2005.

Thorning Revisited