Great Western Rail Disaster
The railway train from Toronto (Canada West) was due at Hamilton at a quarter past six o'clock p.m., Thursday, March the 12th. It came on from Toronto as usual, and was proceeding at a moderate speed to cross the trestle or swinging bridge of the Des Jardins canal…. The moment the train reached the bridge the immense weight crushed through the timbers, and the whole structure gave way, and, with one frightful crash, the engine, tender, baggage car and two first-class passenger cars broke through the severed frame-work, and leaped headlong into the yawning abyss below.
Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper – April 4, 1857
The Great Western Railway passenger trail had come from Toronto, and was due in Hamilton at 6:15 p.m. Over half of the passengers never made it to their final destination.
When the train crashed through the bridge across the Desjardins Canal on March 12, 1857, it was Canada's worst railway disaster to that date. Fifty-nine of the over 100 passengers on board were killed, and eighteen suffered serious injury. Even those whose physical injuries were minor bore lifelong emotional scars.
The Great Western Railroad was a project and cause that Isaac Buchanan felt passionate about. His 1883 obituary noted, "The service of Mr. Buchanan, both in Canada and Great Britain, in the matter of the Great Western Railway construction, will never be forgotten by the people of Western Ontario. Hamiltonians are especially indebted to this pioneer merchant for his efforts to build that line of railway which more than anything else has contributed to bring the city from the position of a small town to that of a magnificent manufacturing and commercial city."
The earliest reports of the disaster claimed that Buchanan had been on the train and included in the list of the dead. The New York Times reported in a March 19 followup story, "Of the persons stated to have been killed, several have been heard of. Captain Twohy and A. Heron, Esq., and Messrs. Mellish and Morrell, of Brantford, and Isaac Buchanan, Esq., we rejoice to say, were not on the train."
Near Hamilton, the Great Western route crossed the Desjardins Canal, which rail travelers traversed via a timber suspension bridge. On March 12, a railway worker at the Hamilton station (just over a kilometre away from the canal) was tracing the incoming train's progress via the steam that billowed into the cold air. He later stated that he "saw the steam suddenly stop, and a sort of dust arise. In a second there was no train to be seen." He raised the alarm, sending rescuers to the scene. When they arrived at the canal, what they saw was staggering even in an era when industrial accidents, fires, train wrecks, and their gruesome aftermaths were a frequent sight.
A broken axle on the engine had thrown the train from the track, hurled it through the bridge deck, and sent it crashing down the 60 foot chasm. The engine and tender broke the ice, which was 45 cm thick, and immersed in freezing water; the baggage car slid along the ice when it struck the tender but did not overturn. The first passenger car was not so lucky- it landed on its roof, broke through the ice, and was crushed. Only four people survived its descent: a Hamiltonian named Owen Doyle, a James Barton of Stratford, and two young children under 10 years old. The last car landed on its end and remained in an upright position.
Owen Doyle saved himself by pushing through a broken window as the icy water rushed in. He swam to the surface, climbed onto the ice, and lost consciousness. When he came to, the combined shock of his injuries and the reality that seven family members died in the wreck rendered him temporarily insane. James Barton could not even remember getting to safety. He recalled hearing a 'wild scream' seconds before he was tossed against the car ceiling. As the water engulfed him, he made a desperate stroke for a broken window, and knew nothing more until rescuers picked him up off of a cake of floating ice. His father, who had been sitting reside him in the car, was killed.
The two children who survived were the niece and nephew of Owen Doyle. A woman who lived near the bridge and was actually the first to witness the disaster, found the eight year old girl sprawled on the ice. The child begged, "Oh, don't mind me, save my brother." The woman made her way across the ice and pulled the boy out of the submerged car, where he'd been clutching a window frame and fighting to keep his chin above water. She called for a male survivor to assist her in bringing both children to the warmth of her house.
The survival of a Toronto man, Henry August, was nothing short of miraculous. He and a companion had been riding in the rear of the ill-fated first passenger car. When they heard the din of the engine going off the track, both men rushed for the door. August reached the platform and jumped off just three feet from the mouth of the chasm. As soon as he recovered from the shock of his near-escape, he stumbled down the hill and pulled his friend from the water.
Rescuers had a hard time descending the steep, icy slope to reach the accident site. They used ropes to lower ladders, onto which the dead and wounded were placed and carefully hoisted upward. The bottom of the first passenger car was tackled with axes so that the bruised, waterlogged bodies could be retrieved. Each one was placed in one of the cars that had escaped immersion or in a small house close to the bridge, pending removal to Hamilton.
Seventeen of the dead and five of the injured were Hamiltonians. Among the notables killed was Samuel Zimmerman, railway contractor, whom Buchanan had contested for the charters for the Amherstburg and St. Thomas Railway, and the Woodstock and
Lake Erie Railway and Harbour Company.
When news of the accident reached the city, the resulting excitement reached epic proportions. Worried residents hurried to the Great Western Depot, seeking information as to who had been killed and, more importantly, who had survived. Many proceeded to follow the tracks directly to the disaster site. When special trains returned bearing the wounded and dead, the half-frozen survivors were mobbed by people demanding to know the fate of a friend or family member. The Artillery Company had to be called in to control the frantic crowd.
The corpses were moved into a large baggage room, where Coroners Bull and Roseburgh examined them. Once the public was admitted into the makeshift morgue so that the sad business of identification could begin, heartrending scenes broke out all over the room. Tears were universally shed when one man's pockets yielded soaked letters from his wife and children, all of whom complained about missing him and begged him to come home. Another man was found in possession of a letter from his ill mother, who pleaded for financial aid. The requested money was nestled in the same pocket as the letter.
When darkness fell, locomotive lamps and kindled fires cast a haunting glare over the smashed train and mutilated bodies. Major Boker and Captain Macdonald's companies of volunteers arrived to assist with the rescue and salvage effort.
The City of Hamilton declared March 16, 1857 to be an official day of mourning, and a huge public funeral was attended by over 10,000 people.
The inquest ran for several weeks, and received major press coverage. Survivors, many of them with hideous injuries still visible, recounted the tragedy to a hushed and packed courtroom. Below are some testimony examples that were entered into the record (taken from the Inquest Notes)
Richard Jessop (Auditor of Great Western since 1854): was in last car when accident occurred.... Just as it (the train) passed the switch next to the draw bridge at Desjardins Canal, he saw the conductor come out of the other car and endeavor to draw the pin connecting the cars, felt slight shock, saw conductor jump off, made for door but did not get it open first time. When he did get it open, he was just able to get onto the stonework previous to the car going over into the canal. The last car stopped an instant before it went over into the canal. There was not the slightest bumping before the engine and train went over. Would have known if engine or any wheels were off the track. Has been on a train when the engine went off the track and he knew it then. The conductor coming out and the feeling of the train stopping were simultaneous. The last car was on the track when witness turned around and looked at it. Train was going at about 8 miles an hour. Did not hear any signal even immediately preceding the accident, other than the usual signals for slacking up to that point.... witness ran up the bank and went immediately to the Doctors.
William K. Muir (Superintendent of the Great West Railway Co): was on the train, was sitting in the last seat of the last car, reading at the time. Felt a slight jerk as if the steam had been shut off and heard a shout, and got up and looked through the cars to see if they were in line, then opened the door and saw Barrett the conductor on the track. He shouted, and witness got off. Just as he got off, he heard a noise above his head, and, looking, saw the platform of the last car striking the bridge. Later examined the tracks and saw marks, as if one of the truck axles had got off the track.
Edward Barrett (Conductor): has been conductor for a year. Was standing on the forward platform of the hind car. When he heard a whistle for brakes on , he heard someone shout 'Jump' and witness did jump. The switch as they passed it was perfectly right. Did not experience any unusual motion....
Thomas Telfer, mail conductor, testified that as the train was approaching the bridge, he was standing by a stove in his compartment. He was first alerted to danger when the wheels of the car knocked against the ties, but before he and Edward Richardson, another conductor, could escape, their car plunged toward the canal. Fortunately the end of the car, where they had been standing but minutes before, partially protruded from the water and they escaped death by drowning. They forced the door open, climbed on top of the battered car, and remained until rescuers retrieved them.
An investigation showed that cheaper pine had been used in place of the more expensive yet sturdier oak. Even so, it would have been strong enough to hold a train under normal conditions, but the jury found that it had "no margin of safety for derailment." They recommended that "all trains should be compelled to come to a dead stop before passing this and all similar bridges." Ironically, there had been such a law in effect at one time, but a couple of years prior to the accident, the government quashed it- after extensive lobbying by none other than Samuel Zimmerman.
Illustrations of the Great Western Railway Disaster. (click on images to enlarge)
Harriet Annie Wilkins, a local poet, penned the following tribute to the disaster victims:
Tears for the dead- sad tears
For broken hearts are lying in our way;
Behold the "Princess of the Provinces"
Warm hearts were beating high:
Their chosen city was within their sight
And schemes and hopes, and love's sweep lamp
Were burning bright
Tears for the dead- sad tears;
One fearful crash, and hark one awful scream-
The falling car of Juggernaut had reached
The ice-bound stream.
Could naught have stayed thee, foe?
Riches were thy victims found, O Death;
And would have gladly changed with thee
Their gold for breath.
The fire was on the hearth
The sun was set, the evening meal was spread,
When round the city rung the direful sound.
"Thy loved are dead."
Tears for the dead- sad tears;
Yet doth the rainbow glimmer on the cloud,
And hues of Paradise do brightly beam
On pall and shroud.
Partial List of Hamilton Dead and Wounded
Donald Stuart, merchant, formerly of the Parish of Carmichael, Banffshire, Scotland
Mrs. Beck and daughter ( wife of John Beck)
John Sharp, book vendor, Hamilton depot
Erastus W. Green
John Henderson, brother-in-law of C.J. Brydges, Esq., Managing Director of G.W.R.R.
Mahale Claire, 2 years old, daughter of J.K. Clare
Rev. Mr. Heise, clergyman of Church of England
Adam Ferrie Jr., barrister
Mrs. H.P.S. Stevenson, daughter of Sheriff Thomas. Died of injuries after crash.
Marshall F. Farr, died of his injuries after crash.
Captain James Sutherland, of the steamer Magnet. A dozen sailors took charge of his body, who bore him to a flour warehouse and covered him with a Union Jack. All seemed deeply affected.
John K. Clare, slightly hurt
Michael Brennan , scalp wound, chest injuries
John Brennan, face and chest wounds
Elizabeth Brennan, bruised head
John Henderson, slightly wounded