What was termed at the time the worst accident in the history of the CPR took place about 1 p.m. on Friday, January 21, 1910. The disaster occurred about 37 miles west of Sudbury on the Soo line of the CPR at the bridge crossing the Spanish River.
Coroner Howey, on instructions from Attorney – General Boy through Crown Attorney J.H. Clary, had a jury summoned for 10 a.m. January 26. The jury consisted of John McLeod (foreman), J.R. Bissett, R. Martin, F.M. Stafford, D. Blue, John Higgins, C. Carmichael, D.L. Burns, S. Jessop, H.S. Young, W. Chalmers, L. Laforest, O Tuvor and D. McDonald.
Upon being sworn in, the jury viewed the body of one of the victims. Subsequently, they were taken by a special train to the scene of the wreck.
After several days deliberation, the jury in February reported their verdict and recommendations. They concluded that the derailment was “…caused by the forward truck of the first-class car leaving the track, and plunging over the embankment, followed by the dining and sleeping car; also causing derailment of the second-class car.” However, they were unable to determine the cause of the derailment.
The jury concluded by making three recommendations:
“(1) Are three sectionmen sufficient to keep an eight-mile section in proper condition during the winter time, in the rigorous climate of Northern Ontario?”
“(2) Should openings be placed in the roof of cars, capable of being opened either inside or outside of the car, suitable for the escape of passengers in case of overturned cars.”
“(3) Should emergency tools be carried at convenient places outside of cars as well as inside?”
These recommendations were made after interviewing many officials and employees of CPR.
The train (engine No. 1116, train No. 7) consisted of seven cars – mail, baggage, colonist, second-class, first-class, diner and Pullman. The engineer was George Trelford, of North Bay.
According to contemporary accounts, the second-class car, separated from the colonist in front, turned sideways and struck the iron bridge. The car broke in two – half falling to the ice below, the remainder catching fire. The first-class coach fell to the river and cut through ice a fool thick “as clean as if cut with a saw.” Only three escaped from the first-class coach.
PARTLY IN WATER
The dining car followed the first-class car into the river with the kitchen end remaining out of the water. There were about fourteen in this car including, from Sudbury, W.J. Bell, lumberman; D.M. Brodie, police magistrate and J.H. Wade. Almost everyone in that car was injured. A number drowned.
Conductor Tom Reynolds helped many of the survivors to find hat hooks that enabled them to stay above the water. He broke a window, surfaced, and then proceeded to help a young boy and Mr. Brodie escape through a ventilator. Eventually, a hole was broken in the roof to bring out the remaining survivors.
The Pullman car also went over the embankment and turned on its side. Most were injured, but none fatally.
A traveler and a brakesman hurried to Nairn, five miles from the accident, where the nearest telegraph office was located. Dr. Arthur, of Sudbury, was there and immediately was taken to the wreck by freight engine. Drs. Patterson, Cook, McCann, Torrington and Mulligan were brought from Sudbury on a special train. Over 20 survivors were taken to hospital in Sudbury.
As often is the case with disasters, rumors were prevalent. The story was told of injured bodies cremated – in the burning car. This was denied.
Also, for several days, a rumor circulated suggesting there was another coach yet undiscovered in the river. The order book in Sudbury soon dispelled this story.
The belief prevailed that a very strong current at the bridge had swept bodies downstream. This tale was corrected by the Spanish River at Espanola.
FROM WIDE AREA
The list of dead included people from Norway, and from Wisconsin, Montana, Minnesota, Michigan, the territory of Washington and from Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick.
Included among the dead were George McDougal, of Copper Clif; Agnes Milroy, of Cache Bay; Lomie Theria, of Nairn; George Roseback, of Webbwood, and Dr. Allan McLellan, of Sudbury.
George Roseback, CPR fireman, was in the first-class car. He had recently insured his life to take effect at 12 o’clock noon on the day of the accident. Less than 1 ½ hours after the policy was in effect he was dead.
Dr. McLellan, in the first class coach, had arrived in Sudbury about a year before the tragedy with his young bride, to whom he was married just a year on the day before the accident.
The injured from Sudbury included D.M. Brodie, who had three broken ribs and cuts on the head; J.H. Wade, with a number of cuts and bruises, and W.J. Bell, listed as seriously injured.
Times of tragedy are usually not without their heroes and heroines. Accounts praised conductor Reynolds, who with a badly bruised leg and head custs, worked for hours after the wreck. It was to be after 8 at night before he made it to the American Hotel in Sudbury and had his wounds dressed.
AIDED THE INJURED
Half a dozen men “…who themselves had done 10 men’s work” spoke highly of a Mrs. H.A. Linall, of Winipeg. The windows were broken in the Pullman and it was converted into a temporary hospital. There, “with a little tin full of whiskey and strips torn from her cloth”, Mrs. Linall aided the injured.
She tended to one man who was “brought in with practically the whole top of his skull lifted off.” Finally, she was persuaded to rest. However, on her way to the headquarters she passed a caboose which had been rushed up from Nairn and had become a form of ambulance. She then tended the wounded there.
The Spanish River train wreck of 1910 was to take over 40 lives. The worst accident in the history of the CPR would also undoubtedly deeply scar the survivors. As is often the case with accidents of this nature, the best and worst characteristics of mankind are present. Also, details subside with the passage of time. Probably we will never know the full horror, the complete details of the train wreck of 1910. Yet, it still constitutes an “important chapter in our history.”
Gary Peck is a retired Sudbury high-school teacher with a passion for history.