This is the second of my two-part series on the railroad and the part it has played in our local history. Part one looked at the arrival of the railroad, now we will look at the effects of its arrival, including the numerous accidents and misadventures resulting from the rapid growth of this new medium of transportation.
Railway accidents resulted from several situations, including but not limited to improperly laid track beds, metal fatigue, fire, flawed rails, human error, frail bridges and tunnels, a lack of proper signage and adequate signalling. This article will detail some of the more spectacular railway incidents in our history, in chronological order.
Immediately after the arrival of the first railroads to the area, we began to experience a series of tragic accidents. Within a month of the opening of the Ontario, Simcoe, and Huron Railway, we were to experience more than 20 tragic accidents in Upper Canada with the resultant loss of over 193 people and the injury of hundreds more.
The causes of these accidents ranged from a gravel train colliding with an express train that was running seven hours late and trying to catch up to a passenger train, falling through a timber suspension bridge. We have had any number of derailments due to equipment flaws like broken wheel axles or open swing bridges over the rivers as well.
In recent years, large-scale railway derailments and collisions have caught the public’s attention, but this is certainly not anything new in Canadian transportation history. Rail accidents dot the history of the railways in Canada and have tragically shaped the lives of so many Canadians.
In 1867, No. 10 engine exploded while standing beside the freight house in Barrie, destroying everything within range and on Dominion Day, 1867, No. 13 engine exploded just north of Richmond Hill. Both were part of the Ontario, Simcoe and Huron line that served Newmarket.
Two rail accidents occurred within days of each other back in 1874, when a six-car pileup occurred at Davis Drive with the conductor dying of his injuries and then two days later, a derailment occurred just north of Newmarket between here and Holland Landing involving two cars. Both accidents were attributed to equipment malfunctions.
Back in August 1878, David Westover was walking south along the tracks just south of Wellington Street in Aurora when he was struck by a southward bound train. Reports state he decided to sit on the tracks while he rested his feet when the train struck him, first severing his legs, and then dragging him further down the tracks. The accident was called a misadventure but it is clear that the dangers of walking along or sitting near a railway track would remain a hazard as the local papers are full of many such instances unfortunately.
In the summer of 1860, an intoxicated gentleman who had passed out along the tracks just north of Aurora died when a passing train hit him while he lay prone over the tracks.
If one looks back through the newspapers of the day, one will notice that we seemed to average about five or more rail incidents a month, from varying causes.
In August 1907, the town experienced a derailment on the Grand Trunk Line at Timothy Street adjacent to the Office Specialty building when a train heading north jumped the rails and spilled its cars along the tracks. From the photograph, it would seem that it brought out the local population in mass to have a look.
In 1907 a new braking system for trains was introduced, a type of automatic system where the engineer could engage the brakes until the train came to a complete stop. A follow-up article six months later indicated that the new system worked so well that the brakes were to be installed on all trains.
On Feb. 26, 1930, a CNR train headed from Sudbury to Toronto derailed just south of Holland Landing with the first-class car and five pullman cars leaving the tracks and travelling for over 100 feet before ploughing into the surrounding terrain.
Only the engine, tender and second-class car remained on the track. Had the train travelled another 150 feet, it would have tipped into the Holland River, which was at that time considerably larger. No life-threatening injuries were reported, just severe abrasions. The cause of the accident was judged to have been a broken rail.
In 1936 a car driven by James Schloss was travelling west along Water Street when it crashed into a train headed south bound at the crossing. It was said that the road was very slippery coming down the hill and Schloss did not see the signal.
You will remember that there were no rail barriers back then and the signals were simply little red lights that flashed. His car was thrown 40 feet, landing beside the pond with Schloss sustaining only minor injuries.
In 1941, Jack Bronfman and his two passengers were headed east on Water Street when their truck stalled while going up the hill just before Prospect Street. It proceeded to roll back towards the crossing when Bronfman was unable to restart it.
A CNR freight train, which had stopped at the station on Davis Drive, struck the truck, tossing it aside and destroying it. The three men had been able to flee the vehicle prior and were thus saved. Reports in the paper indicate that a barrier at the crossing would have prevented this incident, a notion that was to be implemented in the future.
Over the years, people walking along the tracks or simply crossing the tracks have met their death. In 1941, Richard Pugh, a worker from a local farm was struck by a southbound train as he was on his way to work. It was reported Pugh was nearly deaf and likely did not hear the train coming. He was found with his pipe in his hand, which may indicate that he was simply taking a leisurely walk to work as he was struck just outside his place of employment. Sadly, many people have been killed while on foot over the years and it continues to happen from time to time.
The Water Street crossing seems to have been a frequent location for rail mishaps. In 1950, a Riddell’s bakery truck driven by Milton Longfield struck a southbound train at the Water Street crossing and was dragged toward Fairy Lake. The truck was headed westward towards Main Street, having just come down the hill from Prospect Street, only to collide with a slow-moving (estimated at 10 mph) train headed south. The driver escaped without injury, but the truck was destroyed.
In 1951, Murray Wismer, a truck driver in a rig, collided with a northbound train on the Bradford flats while turning into a warehouse to pick up his load. While he indicated he had heard the signal, he said that it was instantaneous to the arrival of the train at the crossing. The truck was carried a quarter mile towards Bradford upon impact and Wismer had barely exited the truck before impact.
The number of incidents resulting from the inefficient and unsafe railroad signalling was to bring about the move to crossing gates which would lower prior to the train’s arrival, preventing the vehicle from crossing on to the tracks when a train was approaching.
Most people will remember the derailment that took place just north of Davis Drive in the late 1950s. These incidents were sadly not rare and were generally attributed to either human error or faulty equipment.
Automatic barriers were first introduced in 1961. This change in crossing equipment was to bring a major change to the operating ethos of the railways. While the duty to control the risk at a level crossing would still remain with the railway, it now placed an added responsibility for the safe use of public crossings upon the road user.
It should be noted that after years of discussion between the railways, municipalities and Transport Canada, the federal government in 2014 passed new regulations to require upgrades across Canada, but existing crossings are not required to meet these new safety standards until 2021.
When we look at a government report entitled Transport Canada’s List of the 500 'highest risk railway crossings’, we note that there are no York Region crossings mentioned, which I suppose should be reassuring.
While a push was being made to find a viable solution to the dangerous situation at area railway crossings, in 1943, Fred Denison and Clement King of Second Street were partitioning both the federal and local government to ban whistles within the town proper, arguing that the whistles disturbed them night and day and that they felt that the whistle was totally unnecessary saying that the flashing red lights should be sufficient warning of an approaching train.
Their petition found support locally according to the paper and the whistles were stopped for a while and when they did return, their use was severely curtailed. It must be stated that during the war period, it is said that there was a train passing through Newmarket every 40 minutes around the clock.
The local farmers also had their own peeves about the train, dating back to the very beginning. Stories of cows that either refused to give milk or to procreate and chickens that produced less eggs than they did before the arrival of the train continued to arise. It must be stated that the same could be said about the arrival of the automobile.
People usually resist change and attribute omens to any ‘new-fangled technologies’ they see. My own Grandpa always maintained that the Metropolitan railroad scared the horses and reduced local agricultural output.
This account isn’t intended to cover every incident, but to be representative of the issues that arose with the coming of the railroad. We all know personally of rail mishaps that have taken place locally over the years or have been touched by them. The numbers of incidents have been reduced considerably with the installation of proper rail crossing barriers and other upgrades. However, they still do occur.
In many areas of the country, rail lines now run outside the urban borders and train travel within the town/city proper has been curtailed. The railroad running down the centre of Newmarket has been both a blessing and a curse. It brought much needed commerce and contributed to the rapid growth of our town, but it also brought a pending danger as accidents did occur that were often tragic.
Sources: Reference Services Division of Library and Archives Canada - Rebecca Murray; Canadian Railway Disasters by Hugh A. Halliday; Transport Canada list of 500 'highest risk railway crossings’ by Jacques Marcoux, Jeremy McDonald · CBC News – Apr. 13, 2016; The Newmarket Era; Oral History Articles Conducted by Richard MacLeod; The Toronto Star
Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod, the History Hound, has been a local historian for more than 40 years. He writes a weekly feature about our town's history in partnership with Newmarket Today, conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, and leads local oral history interviews.