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Thorning Revisited

by Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015

Two infants killed in 1903 train wreck near Ponsonby

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.

Wellington County has experienced a couple dozen serious pileups since 1856, when trains began running through the area, so they were by no means common.

Only a few of them resulted in loss of life, an enviable record when compared with the devastation on modern highways.

A cluster of accidents occurred on the Grand Trunk in the short interval between 1900 and 1910. Inept management plagued this line for years, and after the turn of the century the inescapable consequences of demoralized employees, deferred maintenance and obsolescent equipment caught up with the company.

Between 1900 and 1909, the Grand Trunk suffered six wrecks on its line from Guelph to Elora and Fergus.

Most tragic of these was a derailment on March 18, 1903, about one mile south of Ponsonby in Pilkington Township, where the line crossed a stream known locally as Keating Creek. This mishap claimed the lives of two infants, and sent about 30 people to hospitals in Fergus and Guelph.

On the fateful morning, a Wednesday, engineer Fred Heslewood eased Train 17 out of the Guelph station at a few minutes after 11am. He was almost a half hour behind schedule, but this was not unusual for the Grand Trunk.

He stopped briefly at Marden, which was only a flag stop for this train, to let off Roadmaster Ferguson, who wanted to check some trackage in the large gravel pit there.

Heslewood started his train again to make the dash to Elora. Two miles farther, he glanced back and noticed the rear car seemed to be out of alignment. He had just crested a hill, and his train gained speed as it approached the crossing of Keating Creek, which was swollen with spring flood water.

The last car, a first class coach, was indeed off the rails, and bouncing the passengers “like marbles in a box,” according to one survivor.

The bobbing coach soon pulled the car in front of it – a combination smoking car and mail car – off the rails. The third car, filled with express and baggage, followed, and the tender of the locomotive derailed as well when Heslewood managed to get his locomotive stopped.

By then the cars had careened down a 15-foot embankment, landing on their sides in two feet of icy water.

Bruised and dazed passengers moaned as they tried to pull themselves out of the water and off one another. The uninjured broke windows and pulled themselves out, then tried to get the injured out.

Dr. Savage of Guelph, a passenger, took charge of the rescue effort. Uninjured passengers, with the assistance of nearby farmers who arrived within minutes, carried the serious casualties to the house of Joseph Keating, only a short distance away.

Meanwhile, a brakeman ran back to Marden station, where the agent telegraphed news of the derailment to Guelph, Elora and Palmerston.

Officials quickly commandeered crews for wrecking trains, one from Palmerston and the other from Stratford by way of Guelph. The agent also sent messages to Dr. Robertson and Dr. Kerr in Elora, and to three Guelph doctors, to come as quickly as possible.

The relief train from Palmerston arrived at about 1:30pm, two hours after the derailment.

The doctors had already arrived by carriage. They moved some of the injured to a railway car on stretchers. The train took them to the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Fergus, which had opened only a year earlier. Guelph General Hospital accepted the remainder of the injured.

The tumbling of the coach had wedged two-year-old Lillian Irvine under a seat and beneath the water. Rescuers eventually pulled her out, but Dr. Savage, after attempts at reviving her, pronounced the child dead on the scene as a result of drowning.

There were other serious injuries. Charles, the infant son of Mr. and Mrs. J.J. Houston, had severe head lacerations and his mother suffered broken bones. Philip Farrelly of Drayton received some bad burns. Conductor Lilles and the mail clerk Andy Cheney had skull and chest injuries.

At the Fergus hospital, Dr. Groves declared the Houston boy dead on arrival from head injuries, and he feared that Cheney’s prospects were not good.

The railway crews worked quickly, and had the line reopened by late afternoon. In the process, they may have destroyed evidence that would point to the cause of the wreck. As word got out, hundreds of spectators from Elora and Guelph converged on the scene, despite the deplorable condition of the roads.

In Guelph, crown attorney Henry Peterson lost no time in calling a coroner’s inquest.

Public outrage against the Grand Trunk had grown in recent months. This was the 11th fatal accident on the Grand Trunk’s Ontario lines since Christmas 1902. James Argo of Fergus acted as the foreman of the jury, which included men from Guelph and the surrounding area.

The inquest convened at the Fergus hospital on March 23, 1903. Dr. Groves testified on the deaths of the two infants. Then passengers took the stand. Some said the train was travelling very fast. Others disputed this. Most agreed the track was very rough.

Engineer Heslewood denied that he had been trying to make up time, and stated “the track was no rougher than it had been for 30 years.” He did admit the roadbed could be soft in the spring.

All the railway witnesses agreed with Heslewood. The section gang responsible for the track claimed it was in good repair. Car maintenance employees assured the jury the rolling stock had been thoroughly and regularly checked.

Witnesses advanced several contradictory theories about the cause of the wreck, but no one had sufficient evidence to prove their hypothesis. Some blamed the track, others the passenger car.

Determined to get to the bottom of the matter, Peterson recessed the inquest and sent a request to chief engineer Joseph Hobson in Montreal to examine the track personally. He declined, but Peterson did get two independent opinions from other engineers, and they testified when the inquest reconvened on March 27.

After inspecting the track, both noted the rails had innumerable loose bolts and partially-driven spikes. Some ties had obvious signs of rot, and others had sunk below the rails, offering no support at all.

One engineer noted the track moved vertically at least a half inch when a train went over it. The other observed that the railway had replaced several hundred ties in the vicinity of the wreck in the days after the accident.

Both the engineers recommended the railway cut down a hill to the south of the scene, and raise the trackage over the creek by four feet to provide a more level line.

In the end though, it was still not possible to point to the track as the indisputable cause of the derailment. The jury agreed with the Grand Trunk lawyers when they brought in their verdict: “we can find no cause for the accident.”

The jury did recommend that a government inspector be appointed to visit the sites of train wrecks before the railway commenced cleanup operations.

Miraculously, no more deaths occurred among the injured.

Over half the passengers had walked away with only minor scrapes and bruises. Among the later was Lionel Clarke, a future Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, returning to attend to his business interests in Palmerston.

For one family the wreck compounded grief. Rev. W.T. Hallam was travelling to Fergus to conduct the funeral of Thomas Hughes, longtime proprietor of the Dominion Hotel situated across the street from the Grand Trunk station. With him was Tom Hughes’ niece. She was the mother of the drowned young person, Lillian Irvine.

Note: The Grand Trunk Railway was acquired by the federal government in 1919 and was one of a number of railroads merged to form the Canadian National Railway in 1923. Elora’s Grand Trunk Railway station was at the south end of town, beside Wellington Road 7, close to the site of the Gorge Restaurant. The Cotton Tail Trail follows part of the GTR rail line, which crossed the #7, turned and headed south, past Ponsonby, through Marden and on to Guelph.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Nov. 30, 2001.


Vol 50 Issue 03


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Wellington County


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