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Several people killed in 1907 train derailment near Guelph

Were lives put at risk in the name of 'profits over people'?

Recent railway disasters in Ohio and Greece drew international attention. The Ohio train wreck was particularly concerning because of the possibility that the removal of safety regulations might have been a contributing factor. Had lives been put at risk because of a “profits before people” mentality?

That very question was on the minds of Guelphites – and other Canadians – in the aftermath of a train wreck in 1907.

By the early 20th century, rail was the principal means of travel in Canada. For residents of Guelph, a train trip could be a short outing to Fergus or a journey to Toronto – from which you could go anywhere in the world by rail or water. The alternative to the train was a bone-jarring coach or wagon ride over rough, unpaved roads. Only a wealthy few owned one of those new-fangled automobiles.

But train travel had its dangers. Steam engines were cantankerous machines that had a tendency to explode if they weren’t properly handled, and not all railroad engineers were well-trained in their operation. Moreover, engineers and their crews were notoriously overworked and underpaid, often putting in long hours without sleep, but reluctant to complain out of fear of being fired.

Equipment was often substandard. Railroad companies fought tooth and nail against the implementation of safety regulations that cut into their profits. As a result, railroad accidents were frequent. A fatal one occurred near Guelph on Feb. 26, 1907.

At about 2:40 that afternoon, the Grand Trunk Railroad’s train #5, en route from Toronto to Chicago, reached a place called Trainor’s (or Traynor’s) Cut, two and a half miles (4 km) east of Guelph.

More than 50 people were in the three passenger cars. Among them were John O’Donohue, the former mayor of Stratford; former hockey star Charles Rankin who was on his way home to Stratford after refereeing a game in Toronto, and Mrs. H. Walker of Peterborough who was going to visit her brother in Guelph and was travelling with her two-year-old daughter Eunice.

The train was going about 50 mph on a curved downgrade as it approached a spot where the engineer would shut off the steam as they entered the city.

Suddenly, the passenger cars left the track. They broke away from the rest of the train, rolled over and slid almost 20 metres down a steep embankment into a swamp.

At first, engineer William Thompson and fireman William A. Hurden in the cab of the locomotive were unaware of what had happened. They covered another 185 metres before the baggage car left the rails and dragged the coal tender away with it, breaking it free from the locomotive. Those cars also slid down the embankment.

When Thompson realized something terrible had happened, he immediately engaged the emergency brake. The front of the locomotive stayed on track, but the rear wheels were off the rails.

Thompson and Hurden were unhurt, but there were casualties in the wreckage.

Reverend R.E. Knowles of the Knox Church in Galt had been a passenger in the smoking car when suddenly, “there was a bump.” He was thrown from his seat, and then two men fell on top of him. He later said that the scene in the car was “harrowing.”

One of the men on top of him was Charles Rankin. He was dead, his skull smashed open.

The car’s interior was a jumble of seats that had been ripped loose and people with torn flesh and broken bones. Knowles had a fractured shoulder blade, a sprained elbow, and deep lacerations on one hand.

Even with his injuries, he was able to crawl out through a broken window. Others in the three coaches were in worse shape.

John O’Donohue was dead from a broken neck. Jason Ryan of Guelph had a leg so badly mangled, it would have to be amputated. F.J. Locke of St. Thomas had fractured ribs and his right ear torn off. H.M. Patterson of Stratford had a broken jaw. William Ney, also from Stratford, and A.E. Klippert of Toronto both had broken arms.

Worst of all was the tragedy that had befallen Mrs. Walker. She had her arm pierced by a wooden splinter, but had lost her child. Little Eunice had been thrown out through a window and then crushed to death under the car.

Many other passengers had fractures, bruises, cuts and lacerated scalps. Hardly anyone escaped injury. For some, this wasn’t even their first train wreck.

News of the accident soon reached Guelph. Chief Frederick Randall and Const. Tom Greenaway of the Guelph Police Department hurried out to the wreck site where they found passengers who were not badly hurt assisting the more seriously injured. They took charge of the bodies of the dead and had them transported to the city, along with their personal property.

A false rumour circulated around Guelph that O’Donohue’s body had been robbed.

Meanwhile, the injured were taken to St. Joseph’s Hospital.

A coroner’s jury was empanelled to begin an investigation. An examination of the site showed a broken rail had been the cause of the accident. When the locomotive hit that break, its own weight had caused the tracks to spread apart like the wishbone in a turkey. The jurors also noted the stretch of railroad at the Cut had a history of mishaps, but nothing had been done about the trouble spot.

While accident victims filed lawsuits against the GTR, a Dominion Commission carried out an in- depth probe into railway accidents in Canada, which, according to an editorial in the Toronto Globe, “have come with such persistent frequency that there is an actual danger of the growth of indifference
through familiarity.”

The editorial stated the disaster at Guelph proved  trains should be subject to the same strict government regulations as steamships. Railway tracks should be regularly inspected and when necessary, properly repaired. Engineers should be thoroughly trained and required to pass an examination.

Moreover, said the Globe, there should be some sort of “comeuppance” for corporations driven only by the “universal demand” for profit.

Words from back then are still relevant now.