Over a century ago, the main form of land transportation in Southern Ontario – aside from that provided by horses – was the train. Highways were bumpy, rutted dirt roads that became muddy quagmires after a rain and were buried under snowdrifts in the winter. Even if you had a good horse and a good wagon (or sleigh), any journey of more than a few miles could be a long ordeal, especially in inclement weather.
The situation wasn’t much better if you were among the privileged few who could afford an automobile.
For most people, there was the train. A system of railroad lines that crisscrossed the province meant that people and goods were connected to the big wide world. Even small communities like Fergus and Elora had railway stations where mother, father and the kids could board a train for a Saturday shopping trip to a larger centre like Guelph.
For the truly adventurous, a train ticket was the key to a weekend expedition to the marvels of a big city like Toronto. In the summer, special excursion trains carried vacationers to the Muskokas and other regions we now call cottage country.
Compared to a bone-jarring ride along bumpy roads in a buggy or stagecoach, or in an open sleigh on a cold winter day, train travel was relatively comfortable. At least, passengers didn’t have to get out and help push when their conveyance got stuck in a mudhole or snowbank.
But travel by rail wasn’t without its hazards. Accidents were common. Penny-pinching railroad corporations didn’t always keep up maintenance on the tracks and train equipment. Locomotives were simply big steam engines on wheels, and steam engines were cantankerous contraptions that had a tendency to explode if not operated properly.
Government safety regulations often fell behind constantly changing technology and railway bosses with an eye on profit margins weren’t known for voluntarily spending money on accident prevention. It was much cheaper to blame mishaps on human error, passing the buck of responsibility to overworked engineers who often had to put in long hours in the cab of a locomotive without sleep.
Of course, many accidents resulted from individual carelessness and downright foolishness. For people travelling on foot, a stretch of track often provided the shortest route between two points. Walking along the railroad tracks was always potentially dangerous, especially if the journey meant crossing a bridge. And many a wandering hobo met disaster while trying to catch a free ride on a moving freight train.
Browse through newspaper archives from a century ago, and reports of railroad-related incidents come up regularly. The pages of the Guelph Mercury from just a few days in June of 1916, amidst all the coverage of the Great War in Europe, carried several railroad stories.
In Guelph, the body of a factory worker named George Harris was found beside the railroad tracks early one morning. He had evidently been struck by a train the night before.
A report from Smith’s Falls, Ontario, told of an incident that could have been straight out of a movie. An engineer and a fireman in the cab of a locomotive looked up the tracks and saw a child lying between the rails. It was a little girl who had fallen asleep there. She didn’t respond to blasts from the whistle, and even though the engineer slammed on the emergency brakes, it was clear the locomotive wasn’t going to stop before it reached her. The two men climbed out of the cab and along the sides of the locomotive to the cowcatcher. They got there in time to reach out and scoop the girl up before the engine could roll over her.
They told a reporter it was all in a day’s work, and they didn’t want their names in the paper.
Then on Saturday, June 17, a train wreck occurred a mile outside Elora. At 3:30 p.m. the CPR train bound for Toronto started out from the Elora station. Among the people in the passenger coach, which was the last car at the end of several boxcars, were Fred Hunt, foreman of the T.E. Bissell foundry; Mrs. Leonard Scott, Mrs. John Muir and her seven-year-old son, and retired Methodist minister Charles E. Stafford and his daughter.
All were from Elora, except Mrs. Muir and her boy, who were from Fergus.
Conductor Robert Campbell had just started checking tickets, and the train had barely cleared the Elora yard when it went off the track and down a 10-foot embankment where the passenger car rolled over. Nine people were injured. Fred Hunt had a lacerated scalp and broken ribs. Mrs. Scott had a fractured hip. Minister Stafford had a sprained back and appeared to be suffering from internal injuries. Other people had cuts and bruises and some were in shock.
According to the newspaper report, the passenger car was “pretty badly smashed up,” but none of the train’s crew were badly hurt. They helped passengers get out of the ruined coach while local residents with automobiles drove to the wreck site and took injured people to Royal Alexandra Hospital.
The cause of the accident was a broken rail. The Mercury reported, “The rails are very light at this spot, and the ties are old, and are quite unsuitable for the sort of traffic which passes over them. We understand the company had been complained to regarding the unsafe condition of the road some time ago.”
In fact, there had been a derailment close to the same spot just two days earlier. A special excursion train to Toronto and Niagara Falls had partially left the rails, causing it to be delayed for over seven hours. Fortunately, no one had been hurt in that incident. But this time the train wreck had a fatality. Three days after the incident, minister Stafford died from his injuries.