Saturday 6 April 2019

Fatal derailment at Trainor's Cut, Guelph, 1907

On 26 February 1907, the 2.50 p.m. train from Toronto for Chicago did not pull into the Grand Trunk station in Guelph at the expected time. A few minutes later, word arrived in the city that there had been a derailment—a bad one involving many injuries and several deaths. How many was uncertain but it was clear that Trainor's Cut had once again lived up to its unfortunate reputation.

Located not far east of Guelph, Trainor's Cut had been a trouble spot since the Grand Trunk Railway (G.T.R.) was laid from Rockwood to Guelph in 1855–56. In 1864, a freight train ran off the rails at the site. More recently, two freight trains had collided there in 1904, resulting in a pile up of cars over 30 high and the deaths of two employees. The latest derailment, though, seemed to be the worst yet.

Injured passengers were brought to town and began to tell concerned Guelphites what had happened (Evening Mercury, 26 Feb.):

The first passenger to reach the city was Mr. Arch. Priest, machinist of the Canadian-American Linotype Co., who was on his way to Guelph to put in a day or two at work in the Mercury office. He was driven into the city, his face covered with blood and complaining of pain in the abdomen. The extent of his injuries are not yet known. He said it was the second railway accident he had ever been in, and it was the last he ever wanted to experience. He was in the passenger coach following the baggage car, and stated that when it left the track it rolled over once before reaching the bottom of the forty foot embankment. The worst experience came with the final jar when it stopped at the bottom. Seats were wrenched from their places, the car wrecked and passengers thrown forcibly downwards, and the wreckage precipitated on top of them. Mr. Priest found himself stretched prostrate with two or three others piled on top of him, one of whom must have bled profusely, as the blood which covered his face did not come from himself.
Police and town doctors were summoned and sent to the wreckage. As passengers, officials, and bodies were brought to the city, details of the event began to emerge.

Train No. 5 was on its way from Rockwood to Guelph on its regular run (Evening Mercury, 27 Feb.). It consisted of engine 955 plus its coal tender followed by a baggage car, a combination baggage and smoker car, two passenger coaches and a Pullman parlor car. It appeared that a break occurred in a rail while the train was passing over it. Under the weight of the train, the tracks began to come apart, causing the combination car and three rear coaches to derail. These skipped over the ties for a short distance and then broke off and fell over the embankment. The coaches slid down the icy slope and then rolled over violently at the bottom. The combination car rolled to a right angle with the track and was struck by the passenger car following it, forming an "L". The cars came to rest perhaps 200 yards from the initial breakage.

The engine, tender and baggage car continued down the track. The baggage car, having skipped over the ties to this point, broke loose and dragged the tender away with it. At this point, driver William Thompson became aware of the situation and applied the emergency brake, bringing the locomotive to a stop.

The violence of the derailment was confirmed by survivors (Evening Mercury, 27 Feb.):

Mr. Anderson a foundryman, of Guelph, who was slightly injured, says that he plainly felt the jar when the car struck the broken rail. A moment later the passengers were flying through the air, grasping at anything that offered support. He was certain that the car he was on in the combination baggage and smoker turned over to or three times and he could not understand how so few were killed.
Albert Rogers, whose home is in Oshawa, thought that the car had turned over at least a couple of times before coming to a standstill at the bottom of the declivity. He was surprised that the coolness of the passengers when they had been extricated from the coaches, but said that there were some wild scenes before its windows were broken open. Some persons endeavored to escape by making a footstool of the bodies of others.
Of course, there were many serious injuries as well as three deaths: John O'Donohue and Charles Rankin, both of Stratford, and Ennis Walker, of Peterborough. Mr. O'Donohue, an ex-Mayor of Stratford and Ennis Walker were in the last passenger coach. R.J. Waite, employee of the G.T.R. who was on the car, related the scene:
Ex-Mayor O’Donohue, of Stratford, was sitting on the side of the car opposite to me, and was shot across the car, landing with his head on the clothes rack above the windows. His neck seemed to be broken, and he never moved, being instantly killed.
The child killed was seated beside her little brother. They were accompanied by their mother. They were seated on the same side as myself, and immediately ahead of me. The little girl seemed to disappear at once, and must have gone through the window and under the car. We were looking for her inside, when they got her from under the wreck. The little boy was not much hurt, apparently. The mother was dazed and distracted with grief and suffering from shock and bruises.
The fate of Charles Rankin, a hockey player, was described by Rev. R.E. Knowles of Knox Church, Galt. Rankin was sitting next to Knowles in the parlor car when the derailment occurred. Rankin had been sleeping and was hurled through a window and instantly killed. He had been married only 10 days earlier.

The bodies of the dead were taken to Tovell's undertaking house on Quebec Street. The badly injured were taken to the General Hospital and St. Joseph's Hospital. Those who sustained lesser injures or had access to their own physicians made their way home as best they could, often with the help of friends and family. The Rev. Knowles, for example, made it home to Galt that afternoon:

Rev. Mr. Knowles reached his home in Galt at 4.30, and was met by Dr. Varden. His injuries consist of a broken left shoulder blade, a sprained elbow and severe cuts on the hand. His back is also hurt. The injured clergyman said on being interviewed: “I am more a sufferer from shock than physical wounds. The awful experiences were enough to drive one mad. I scarcely think I shall have nerve enough to board another railway train."
Guelph police arrived on the scene to secure the site and any physical evidence for the Coroner's inquiry that was sure to follow.

In addition, disasters like this always drew the curious public, some of whom took pictures. Among these are the following real-photo postcards.

The caption accurately describes the scene as "Wreck near Guelph." Taken from near the top of the embankment, the picture shows the prostrate passenger cars, with many men standing both in front of and and on top of one of them. Since the car was on its side, the only way in or out was through the windows exposed on the top.

In the foreground, a man can be seen with his back to the camera who also appears to be taking a picture of the scene. So, this card is also a piece of meta-photography: a picture of someone taking a picture. Inadvertently, perhaps, it serves to remind the viewer that the scene on the card was chosen for a particular purpose In this case, the purpose seems to be to gratify an urge to gawk at disasters, suggesting that postcards could serve a purpose not unlike some images communicated through social media today.

Above second car from the right is drawn an "X". This is explained by the message on the back:

Received your card and I am sure that if you cannot get any small photo a large one will be quite acceptable. So send one along and I will await its arrival with interest. This is a photo of the place where Charlie Rankins was killed last winter the cross marks the car which crushed him. Well so long send photo soon // Earl K
The card was sent to Miss Verna Jeffrey of Saskatoon on 17 June 1907. This card is another example of senders using mark-ups to personalize postcards for their recipients. (See my earlier post, "Personalizing postcards: X marks the spot" on this device.) It also reflects the off-handedness with which disaster postcards could be selected for use.

A second car shows an image of the same scene from the east.

This image must be from somewhat later as the crash scene has been further processed. The car that the men were standing on in the first image has been flipped upright and placed on a temporary track that the G.T.R. installed to remove their assets. Damaged trucks and other parts are lined up next to the embankment on the left. Wires attached to the car can be seen overhead, leading to a derrick out of sight on the right brought to tow the cars back to the main line and on to a repair facility. The car that crushed Charles Rankin remains on its side in the foreground.

The caption confirms that the scene depicted is indeed a wreck east of Guelph and the postmark of 4 March 1907 confirms that it is the same wreck.

Between them, these images also confirm the site of the wreck. Both show the wreck on the bottom of a steep embankment. The first also shows a fairly flat landscape in the background with a couple of farm buildings in the middle distance. The second shows a dramatic upslope immediately to the west with a barn only a short distance away.

Interestingly, the Daily Mercury (10 Apr 1907) refers to postcard pictures of the wreck:

An excellent photograph, showing the position fo the coaches at the bottom of the bank east of Trainor's Cut after the recent wreck there, has been developed by Mr. Geo. Stiven, of the local Bank of Commerce staff, in post card form, and is being circulated amongst his friends.
Perhaps at least one of the postcards above was among those taken by Mr. Stiven.

Along the G.T.R. (now Canadian National) track east of Guelph, superposition of a Google Maps terrain map on top of the 1908 Wellington County Atlas shows that a site just east of Jones Baseline matches the one shown in the image. The Atlas shows the farm building of Thomas Gilfillan, shown in the first image. To the northwest and up the nearby slope is the building belonging to Joseph Fletcher, whose property fence the derailed carriages have dislodged. The site of the derailment is marked with a star.

This conclusion suggests that Trainor's Cut refers to the point where the G.T.R. tracks curve around the southern slope of the moraine beneath Jones Baseline where it intersects York Road (now Highway 7), and not a Cityview Drive, which I suggested in my post about the wreck of the Royal City hay train.

The site of the wreck can be discerned from the bridge over the tracks at the baseline, looking east towards Rockwood, just at the point where track curves out of sight.

The immediate cause of the derailment seemed clear enough: The broken rail found at the site had bounced the train from the tracks. The real issue was whether or not the G.T.R. had been negligent in its practices (Evening Mercury, 28 Feb). Coroner Dr. W.J. Robinson began an inquiry into the death of Charles Rankin, immediately empanelling a jury and arranging viewings of the bodies, the scene, and the physical evidence. In subsequent meetings, evidence was presented and the opinions of experts solicited.

The weight of the rail taken from the scene was a cause for concern. It was found to weigh about 69 lbs. per yard, considerably less than the 79 lbs. per yard that was supposed to be in place (Evening Mercury, 6 March). In addition, the railway had recently begun to use heavier engines for its trains. The engine pulling the wrecked train, No. 955, weighed about 91 tons, in contrast to earlier engines, which weighed about 80 tons. Bigger engines could pull larger loads and do it more quickly, but they might also damage rails that were not heavy enough to support them.

Similarly, the speed of the train was considered. Witnesses testified that the train was traveling fast. Its speed was eventually ascertained to be around 60 miles per hour (over 95 kph). Could this speed and the weight of the engine account for the wreck? It suggested that the engine may have broken the rail while passing over it, leaving the following cars to derail when they encountered it.

Officials of the G.T.R. argued that the rail was heavy enough for the trains and that the speed was not excessive. Yet, their arguments struck Robinson as confused and evasive. As to the rails, officials argued that the old rails were made in Britain of better steel than the new, Canadian-made, heavy rails, and so were adequate for the heavier engines. Even if true, this answer was hardly reassuring.

Robinson noted that the G.T.R. had been reinforcing the bridges along its routes in view of the bigger locomotives. So, why not reinforce the rails and roadbeds as well? Railway officials replied that it was hard to say, as bridges, roadbeds, and locomotives were under different authorities at the corporation (Evening Mercury, 13 March). Frustrated, Robinson threatened to subpoena every senior executive at the railway until he found one who could give him a straightforward answer.

G.T.R. Superintendent Brownlee appeared at the inquest a few days later (23 March). His answers struck the Mercury reporter as unenlightening. He asserted that the rails were adequate to bear the weight of the new trains. As to the condition of the roadbed, Brownlee said that:

... although the roadbed on this section was not as good as the best in the States, it was better than the 70% of them; but none used schedules of 60 miles per hour, although some ran a good deal faster, at times, to make their schedules of 50 miles per hour.
He acknowledged that a speed of 60 miles per hour was not safe for the Toronto-Sarnia run in general. Nevertheless, it was acceptable for the Rockwood-Guelph section because that section was, he claimed, unusually well adapted to high speeds. In any event, the G.T.R. had no fast rules regarding speed, which was up to the crew to decide depending on circumstances. Of course, those circumstances included the schedules defined by management, which seemed to necessitate a high speed in this section.

There was also the matter of inspection of the rails. Daily inspections were untaken by a man on a hand cart and weekly inspections by a man on foot. No inspection had taken place on the day of the wreck because the section men had been taken to Toronto for other work. Could the accident have been prevented had the daily inspection taken place? No one could say for sure but Robinson was clearly unhappy that the G.T.R. did not have enough personnel to carry out its regular safety inspections reliably.

After all the evidence and various opinions were heard and taken into account, the jury determined that the G.T.R. had been negligent in the events leading up to the death of Charles Rankin (26 March 1907, Evening Mercury):

From a careful perusal of the evidence we are of the opinion that the train was traveling at a dangerous rate of speed considering the season of the year. The weight of the rail, and engine, and we further believe were, the direct cause of the accident, that caused the death of Chas. R. Rankin.
Of course, a Coroner's jury could not lay legal blame but it could make recommendations. Hoping to prompt the G.T.R. to change its ways, Coroner Robinson communicated the result of the inquiry to the Dominion Railway Commission and the Ontario Railway and Municipal Board (Evening Mercury, 27 March). However, the signs were not good. The last piece of evidence submitted to the jury was the observation that trains from Rockwood to Guelph, featuring the heavier locomotives, were still running through Trainor's Cut at 60 miles per hour after the derailment.

In the early 20th century, the Grand Trunk Railway went on an aggressive program of expansion. There were several reasons. One was that finances were more available as the economy had finally recovered from the Panic of 1893. The G.T.R. had also hired a gung-ho, American railroad man, Charles Melville Hays, to lead the company into better times (MacKay 1993, pp. 8ff). Among his initiatives were the formation of the Grand Trunk Pacific, another transcontinental railway to compete with the Canadian Pacific, and the purchase of new locomotives and track upgrades. Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier magnified these plans to better serve his political interests in Quebec.

The plan set the railway on a collision course with insolvency. Even in this prosperous era, the economy could not support the amount of track being laid. Also, the government had considerable control over the railway, which it heavily subsidized, and did not permit increases in fees sufficient to defray costs. Also, the economic boom did not last long enough for the G.T.R. to recoup its debts.

The Grand Trunk Railway went bankrupt in 1919 and was folded into the Canadian National Railway, along with several other insolvent companies.

Charles Hays did not live to see the foundering of the railway. He was on killed on 14 April 1912 in the sinking of the Titanic while returning from a trip to London to solicit investment in the Grand Trunk Pacific. On the eve of the collision, Hays is supposed to have had a premonition of the consequences of the steamship lines' headlong adoption of bigger, faster ships, "The time will come soon when this trend will be checked by some appalling disaster."

It is curious to note that this period was one of the deadliest in the history of the railway. Nearly 600 people were killed in incidents on the Grand Trunk Railway in 1907, about half of them employees (MacKay 1993, p. 161). The account of the wreck at Trainor's Cut conveys the sense that G.T.R. employees had plenty of experience of train wrecks (Evening Mercury, 27 Feb 1907):

One passenger tells of a wise move on the part of the negro porter, who as soon as he felt that the car was off the track lay flat on his stomach in the aisles and clung to the legs of the seats. The narrator of the incident saw the wisdom of his action and followed his example, and both escaped without injury. The porter afterwards stated that he had adopted this plan of action in about 25 wrecks, and had only a rib broken on one occasion, but he added that this was the worst wreck he had experienced.
The reporter considers the number of wrecks experienced to be an exaggeration, yet the statistics suggest it should not be dismissed out of hand.

Brian Skerrett points out that the name "Trainor's Cut" apparently refers to J. Traynor, the owner of the property near where several derailments occurred. From the 1861 local atlas:

Brian also points out that Clythe's Creek runs through a culvert under the railway tracks on Traynor's property. Thus, "Trainor's Cut" may refer to that culvert.

This attribution is quite plausible. Yet, it would put Trainor's Cut west of Watson Road rather than east of Jones Baseline, a difference of some 3km (2mi). References to "Trainor's Cut" in the newspapers are maddeningly imprecise, placing it anywhere from 1 to 4 miles east of Guelph, leaving it unclear whether that means east of the city centre or the eastern boundary of the time at Victoria Road. Perhaps the term came to refer broadly to the stretch of GTR track in the vicinity of Guelph to its east.

There are a number of further photos of the wreck:

(Courtesy of Guelph Public Library F38-0-10-0-0-10.)

(Courtesy of Guelph Public Library F38-0-10-0-0-11.)

(Courtesy of Guelph Civic Museums 1980.77.1.)

(Courtesy of Guelph Civic Museums 2000.6.1.)

(Courtesy of Guelph Civic Museums 2000.6.2.)

(Courtesy of Guelph Civic Museums 2014.63.1.)

This image looks very much as though it was taken by the photographer seen in the foreground of the first postcard image shown above.

Locomotive 955 was apparently a ten-wheel locomotive built by the Locomotive and Machine Co. of Montreal (later Montreal Locomotive Works—MLW) in 1904 and belongs to 4-6-0 subclass 1-7-a. If so, then it would have looked like this:

(Courtesy of Old Time Trains.)


  1. I'm a lifelong resident of Guelph and I had never heard about this tragedy. What an amazing piece of history.