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Canada's worst railway disasters

Almonte train wreck, 1942. Photo: Wilma Munro.

Almonte train wreck, 1942. Photo: Wilma Munro.

Daniel Martins
Digital Reporter

Sunday, July 14, 2013, 3:42 PM -

As vast as it appears, Canada's history is bound together by the tracks of wood and steel that scar the land from coast to coast, and the Lac-Megantic disaster is one of many that have left a mark on the memory of many communities. The deadly explosion of a train carrying crude oil in the Quebec community that left 50 people dead or missing stands is one of Canada's worst railway disasters.

Below is a list of 10 of the worst train wrecks in Canadian hostory, from the tragedy of St-Hilaire that left almost 100 people dead, to the Mississauga, Ont., train derailment, which forced hundreds of thousands from their homes but killed not a single soul.

Baptiste Creek, October 27, 1854

A culmination of factors came together to cause this wreck, at the time the worst in North America.

A gravel train had been sent out to help shore up parts of the track in need of repair was blindsided not far from Chatham, Ontario, by another train that emerged from a dense fog.

It was an express train on the Great Western Railway, and it was running seven hours late. 

The collision killed 52 people, with another 48 injuries reported.

Desjardins Canal, Ontario, March 12, 1857

This train met its end along the Great Western Railway bridge over the Desjardins Canal near Hamilton, ten years before Canada was formed, when its engine axle broke. 

Courtesy Metropolitan Toronto Reference Library/T14996.

Courtesy Metropolitan Toronto Reference Library/T14996.

It crashed through the bridge’s wooden deck, breaking through the 45-centimetre ice below and dragging several cars with it.

A railway worker in Hamilton tracking the train by its plume of steam recalled seeing “the steam suddenly stop, and a sort of dust arise. In a second, there was no train to be seen.”

He raised the alarm at once, but rescuers struggled to reach the crash site; Winter snows coated the embankments leading down to the frozen canal, although the thick ice made did help in the rescue efforts.

For 59 of the train’s 100 passengers, it was too late.

St.-Hilaire, Quebec, June 29, 1864

Canada’s deadliest train disaster happened a scant few years before Confederation, when a train carrying 438 passengers plunged into the Richelieu River, near the modern-day town of Mont-Sainte-Hilaire.

National Archives of Canada.

National Archives of Canada.

The train’s engineer was already on the swing bridge crossing the river when he realized it was open, and it was far too late to stop. At 1:10 a.m. local time, when many passengers were likely asleep, the engine and several cars careened through the gap and piled atop one another. 

The train was packed with mostly German and Polish immigrants seeking a new life in the New World. 

The death toll was 99, along with at least 100 injured, a railway disaster mercifully unequaled in our Nation’s history.

Wanstead, Ontario, December 27, 1902

Driving blizzard conditions helped seal the fates of a westbound express train and a freight train on the Grand Trunk track near Wanstead, Ontario. The freight train had been warned ahead of time to pull over to let the late-running express train pass, but apparently didn’t make it in time.

Due to the poor visibility, neither crew realized what was coming until just before the collision. The snow and cold made the ordeal even worse for the survivors, and newspaper reports from the time suggest almost no one on either train escaped uninjured.

31 people were killed in the disaster.

Spanish River, Ontario, January 21, 1910

A CPR passenger train bound for Minneapolis ran into disaster not far from Sudbury, when the back half derailed after striking a river bridge.

Two of the heavy cars plunged into the river, easily breaking through the 50-centimetre thick ice, with several people trapped inside.

A local newspaper retrospective details rescue efforts by the unaffected passengers, including the injured train conductor, who was later rewarded for his bravery. An inquiry could not determine the precise cause of the derailment.

Transport Canada says 63 people were killed and another 20 injured, although other accounts put the number of dead at 43.

Almonte, Ontario, December 27, 1942

Up to 39 people may have been killed in this crash, when a troop train rear-ended a passenger train waiting at Almonte station. 

Weather was the enemy in this wartime disaster; Contemporary accounts say the passenger train, swollen with holiday-time travellers, had been delayed along its Ottawa-Pembroke route by rain and sleet. At the time of the collision it was an hour delayed.

Railway men also blamed icy rails as another reason for the collision, as the troop train’s brakes were locked as it rapidly approached the other train.

Aside from the dead, as much as 200 people were reported injured. 

Dugald, Manitoba, September 1, 1947

Labour Day weekend in 1947 was marked by a train wreck that killed 31 people, many of them students and families on their way back to Winnipeg after enjoying an afternoon at the lakeside.

Transcona railway museum.

Transcona railway museum.

Their train hit another train stopped on the tracks. The head-on collision was jarring enough, but the disaster was worsened by a fire that broke out shortly after – the train’s cars were made of wood, and lit by gas lamps.

Investigators could only identify seven of the victims, with the rest being buried in a mass grave at Winnipeg’s Brookside Cemetery.

Canoe River, British Columbia, November 21, 1950

Seventeen soldiers were among the 21 dead in the wake of this collision at the height of the Korean War.

Image: Korean Veterans Association

Image: Korean Veterans Association

Their troop transport collided head-on with another train while a light snow fell. The blame was cast on a telegraph operator who allegedly sent an incomplete message that failed to warn one train of the other’s location. He was acquitted of manslaughter after being successfully defended by his member of parliament -- lawyer John Diefenbaker, who became Prime Minister seven years later.

As for the survivors, they carried right on to the battlefront as soon as they were able, seeing action in Korea the following year.

Click here for a chilling account first-person account by one of them.

Mississauga, Ontario, November 10, 1979

This well-known derailment is the reason this is a list of significant railway disasters, not exclusively deadly ones.

The night before Remembrance Day 1979, a 106-car train went off the rails in Mississauga, sparking a chain of events that would lead to Canada’s largest-ever peacetime evacuation. Check out a news report from the time:

One of the Canadian Pacific freight cars was carrying propane, which exploded in the crash. That would have been bad enough, but other cars were carrying shipments of toxic chorine and other chemicals.

Fearful of the chance of a deadly cloud of toxic gas, authorities evacuated more than 200,000 people from their homes, the majority of the population of the city (today it is Canada’s sixth largest). They didn’t return to their homes until six days later.

The disaster had the potential to be one of the worst in Canadian history, but amazingly, no one was reported killed.

Hinton, Alberta, February 8, 1986

Human error was established as the cause of this wreck, when a Via passenger train collided head-on with a freight train operated by CN Rail.

Twenty-three people were killed and 95 injured. The death toll could have been much higher had freight cars carrying sulfur been at the front of the train, part of which caught fire.

Because neither train’s two-member crew survived, it was not clear exactly why the freight train did not stop, although alcohol and drugs were ruled out. A 1987 inquiry didn’t cast blame on any single individual, but criticized a “railroader culture” that often ignored safety regulations.

The year 2011 marked the 25th anniversary of the crash. Check out this interview with one of the survivors:

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