Learning to Live with Trains

Railroads brought a giant step in technology to the people of these fair hills, a step that took some getting used to. Although the new technology promised commercial progress and an easier lifestyle, it came at a price.

March 22, 2007 | | Back Issues | Departments | Heritage | Historic Hills | In Every Issue | Spring 2007

There were eight children in the wagon heading out of Orangeville. Nellie Birney had the reins, her brother Gilbert was up on the seat beside her, and the six Duckworth youngsters were spread out on the floor behind them. It was July 12, 1898, and the Orange Parade was over. The day was getting on and since their parents were going to stay in town a while longer, the kids were heading back to Grand Valley on their own. Like any young farm girl, Nellie could handle a team. The horses knew the way in any case, so there was really nothing to worry about. Except for the trains. A mile west of Grand Valley, an eastbound CPR freight smashed their wagon to bits, killing two of the children and both horses. Only Nellie and the oldest Duckworth boy escaped uninjured.

Unfortunately, what happened that hot summer day was an all-too-frequent occurrence after the coming of the railroad. This Grand Valley case was typical: at the sight – and especially the sound – of the locomotive the horses panicked and bolted toward the crossing. Even in cases where the engineer had a clear view of the impending disaster, he could rarely brake in time.

Smoke-belching monsters

Accidents were common at rail crossings because horses, unless they were trained to accept the sight and sound of a screaming, smoke-belching monster many times their size, would invariably bolt and run. And because the wagons or buggies they pulled hindered the horses’ natural impulse to turn and run, they often ran into the trains.

Ironically, sometimes it was not noise but silence that caused railway accidents. In these cases the shortcoming was usually not in horses but in humans. An incident at the Orangeville CPR station provides an eyebrow-raising example. Orangeville’s station was a very busy one. It was an important transfer point and had a popular restaurant. It was not unusual for the depot to be filled with people disembarking or boarding, along with a good number of citizens indulging in a favourite pastime of the late 1800s: train-gawking. Orangeville was an especially popular spot for this because the sidings were usually full of railway cars, including a yard engine to shunt them about.

On the morning of July 7, 1890, a Mrs. Hollinger was crossing the tracks on an errand but stopped to watch the yard engine start several empty cars rolling along different tracks. Why she stopped in the middle of the tracks no one knows, but while she gazed in one direction, a car coasted into her from the opposite way. Mrs. Hollinger survived the incident but not without serious injury. She was carried home where Orangeville’s Dr. Henry, working on her kitchen table, amputated her foot.

On April 20, 1909, twelve freight cars rolled down an embankment just north of Cardwell Junction in Caledon. Speed was a factor. Photo Courtesy Peter Elms.

On April 20, 1909, twelve freight cars rolled down an embankment just north of Cardwell Junction in Caledon. Speed was a factor. Photo Courtesy Peter Elms.

An even more gruesome “silent” accident occurred at Bolton a few years later, when a man walking the tracks was struck from behind and instantly killed by a CPR express. When the man was identified some time later, it was learned that he was deaf and couldn’t have heard the train.

Unlimited speed, limited safety

A stage coach running from, say, Erin to Alton or Ballycroy averaged three miles an hour, but the first trains to traverse these hills travelled at triple that or more. Such unprecedented speed was difficult for people to comprehend. Nellie Birney was familiar with the crossing near Grand Valley and must have heard the distant whistle as the train crossed roads on the way to hers, but she probably didn’t understand how quickly it would come upon her.

Fast-moving trains were also a challenge to the men who worked on them. Like today, the motion technology could produce greater speed than the track technology could handle. The famous wreck on Caledon’s Horseshoe Curve made that clear in 1907, when the CPR Exhibition Special sped off the tracks in a horrendous crash.

Safety was also an issue because regulations, if they existed, were often ignored. That was the case with a multi-engine crash south of Shelburne in February, 1905. Six engines and a plow were fighting a losing battle with the snow when three of the engines had to retreat to Crombies Station for water. Frank Hartley, who worked at the grain elevator at Shelburne, jumped on for a free ride and was killed on the return trip when the three engines smashed into the plow.

Not long after that, lax regulations almost caused a far more serious disaster when an overloaded train came hurtling down from Fraxa Junction into Orangeville. The engineer couldn’t stop, but a section hand, alerted by the constantly blowing whistle, threw a switch and diverted the runaway onto a siding where it smashed up several empty freight cars instead of the station house.

Getting the hang of it

By the 1920s, however, train troubles in the hills had diminished significantly. The railroad companies, responsive to both union pressure and their own bottom lines, now embraced the notion of safety, and enforced regulations to support it. And where trains met people – at crossings and in stations – tragic experience had taught respect for the speed and size of the monsters that came down the track.

More subtly perhaps, citizens of the hills had become accustomed to their relationship with the railroad. They were used to speedy mail service now and one-day excursions to Toronto. They had developed a fondness for treats (like fresh oysters in Shelburne, a previously unknown indulgence until a barrel arrived with the very first train in 1873). Railroads meant that goods were received and orders filled at a speed hitherto unknown. People visited more frequently; they travelled spontaneously; they felt connected.

Still, technology always brings a quid pro quo. What happens when it fails? And trains did, especially in winter. As late as 1947, a huge storm stopped the trains into Grand Valley, cutting off food and other supplies to the village for eighteen days. But there was no panic; the people coped, just as we do when the power goes out, the car won’t start and the server is down. Technology is double-edged and train troubles are just one example. The people of the hills discovered that early on.


After the famed Horseshoe Curve Wreck of 1907, the rail line from Bolton to Orangeville was abandoned in favour of the gentler Credit Valley line.Photo Courtesy Dufferin County Museum And Archives.

In the Hills Train Trivia: Whatever Happened to No.555?

After the famed Horseshoe Curve Wreck of 1907 (above), the rail line from Bolton to Orangeville was abandoned in favour of the gentler Credit Valley line. However, Engine 555, a leading actor in the drama, was too valuable to scrap (although some thought she was jinxed now). No. 555 had been built in 1891 with large drive wheels for extra speed, and before her Caledon tenure, did the high-speed run from Montreal to Smith’s Falls. After the Horseshoe incident she was repaired and sold to the Kingston & Pembroke RR. When that company became part of the CPR in 1912, 555 was renamed No. 2004 and continued to pull passengers until she was disassembled and scrapped in 1927.

Walking the Line

Patrons at Orangeville’s Paisley House were surprised when the door opened late on the night of January 31, 1886 and two young boys asked politely if they could come in and stand by the stove. They were even more surprised to learn the boys, aged about 10 and 12, had been orphaned in Buffalo, NY just a week before and had been walking the tracks to get to Markdale where they had relatives. They’d started out with just fifty cents and had saved all of it until they reached Bolton where extreme cold forced them to seek shelter and they spent it on a hotel room there. Upon hearing of their plight, several Orangeville citizens passed the hat, but even with enough money for tickets, the two boys walked the line. They made it to Markdale two days later.

About the Author More by Ken Weber

Caledon writer Ken Weber’s best-selling Five Minute Mysteries series is published in 22 languages. Ken is also the Historic Hills columnist and puzzle meister for this magazine and has a loyal following here in the hills.

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