OttawaMatters.com, in partnership with the Historical Society of Ottawa, brings you this weekly feature by Director James Powell, highlighting a moment in the city's history.
June 25, 1913
It was a bright, warm, early summer day without a cloud in the sky. At about 1:30 p.m. on Wednesday, June 25, 1913, a westbound C.P.R. train pulled out of Ottawa's downtown Central Station headed for Winnipeg. The train consisted of the locomotive, two mail and baggage cars, three colonist (third class) cars, two tourist (second class) cars, one first class passenger coach, a diner car and a Pullman sleeping car. Most of the train's passengers were immigrants, newly arrived in Canada from Scotland and Ireland. Many had left Glasgow ten days earlier on the SS Pretorian of the Allan Line. Before steaming across the North Atlantic for Canada, the ship made a brief stop at Moville on the northern tip of Ireland, in County Donegal, thirty kilometres north of Londonderry, to pick up more immigrants.
The ship docked in Montreal, where its weary passengers spent the night before embarking on the next leg of their odyssey, the long train journey to Winnipeg and points further west. Most of the newcomers to Canada were riding in spartan "colonist" cars.
Furnished with hard benches with little padding, the colonist cars were designed to cheaply transport the hundreds of thousands of poor immigrants who were pouring into Canada from the British Isles to settle in the Prairies. The immigrants came in search of a new, more prosperous life, lured by government advertisements of cheap land, clean, healthy living, and idyllic, western farming communities.
The arrival of the SS Pretorian occurred during the peak of the Canadian immigration boom. A record number of more than 400,000 new arrivals came in 1913 alone, mostly from the British Isles and the United States. Canada's population was less than 8-million at the time. By way of contrast, Canada welcomed 286,000 new permanent residents in 2017 when its population stood at 36.7 million.
For the slightly better-heeled immigrant, a step up from the very basic "colonist" class of car was "tourist" class. Tourist cars offered more comfortable seats and carpeting. Riders were still required to prepare their own meals in a kitchenette. First class customers, who road in luxury in their own carriage, and slept in a Pullman sleeper, patronized a dining car where they were served by uniformed waiters.
Leaving downtown Montreal at 9:45 a.m., the train pulled into Ottawa's newly built Central Station at about noon. The station was located across the street from the opulent Château Laurier Hotel which had opened the previous year. After picking up more passengers, it resumed its journey, first heading across the Alexandra Bridge to the Quebec side of the Ottawa River, then travelling through Hull before returning to the Ontario side via the Prince of Wales bridge. A few kilometres outside of Ottawa, the train passed through cottage country along the shore of the Ottawa River. At one point, it travelled parallel to a streetcar making its way to the little resort community of Britannia, the site of the popular amusement park. Children and women leaned out the windows to wave handkerchiefs to people on the shore.
As it entered McKellar Townsite, a new, residential development, the train began to rock.
With a loud grinding sound, the train buckled and twisted. Two colonist cars located in the centre of the train jumped the tracks and slide down an embankment into the Ottawa River, landing in shallow water on their side. Two tourist cars also left the rails on the south side of the tracks away from the water, and jackknifed in the air. The first class carriage, dining car and Pullman sleeper at the rear of the train remained up right, as did the locomotive and the first three cars.
On board, people screamed in terror and pain as they and their belongings were flung about the carriages. In the dining car, luncheon was in the process of being served. Diners and waiters were knocked off their feet; dishes and cutlery crashed to the floor. Oddly, in the rear Pullman sleeping car, passengers experienced only a minor jolting.
People travelling in the two colonist cars, which had tumbled down the embankment to lie partly submerged in the Ottawa River, suffered the worst. Many were severely injured. Several died either from impact injuries or from drowning despite the water being no more than three feet deep, having been knocked unconscious or trapped under debris. In total, eight people died, and another 65 were injured. All the fatalities were Irish or Scottish immigrants, ranging in age from 10 months to 55 years of age.
Newspaper accounts say that there was little panic after the accident, with passengers helping each other out of broken windows. Assistance also came from nearby homes, passersby and passengers on the streetcars.
News of the accident was telephoned into the police in Ottawa, with ambulances quickly arriving on the scene. The Citizen remarked that the automobile had proved its worth, and that lives were undoubtedly saved by the speedy response made possible by the internal combustion engine.
It was reported that half of Ottawa's doctors were at the scene of the accident at some point in the afternoon to render medical help. The Victorian Order of Nurses also responded to the call for emergency medical assistance. Spiritual solace came from the Bishop Charlebois, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Keewatin, who had been travelling in the first class carriage along with two other clergymen; all three had escaped the wreck unscathed.
The injured were conveyed to two Ottawa hospitals, St. Luke's, located at the corner of Elgin Street and Gladstone Avenue, and the General on Water Street. The uninjured were put up in Ottawa hotels by the C.P.R. The bodies of the victims were sent to two local funeral homes, Rogers & Burney's on Laurier Avenue and Brady & Harris on Lisgar Avenue.
There was a lot of confusion about the identity of one of the deceased women.
At the funeral home, the only piece of identification found on her body was a piece of paper with a hand-written address on it discovered in a coat pocket. The address was for a Mrs. Bunting of Winnipeg. However, after a telephone call to Winnipeg, it turned out that Mrs. Bunting and her four children, all of whom had been on the train, were safe at a home on Woodroffe Avenue in Ottawa. Mrs. Bunting had written her address on a piece of paper and had given it to the victim prior to the accident so that she might be able to contact Mrs. Bunting after she had settled out west. Instead, it was the body of Mrs. John McClure. Mrs. McClure had been travelling from County Antrim with her daughter-in-law and her two grandchildren John, 5, and Matilda, 10 months, to join her son in Edmonton. Only the daughter-in-law, the junior Mrs. McClure survived the wreck, saved by a quirk of fate. She had just gone to the kitchen to prepare lunch for her children when the train went off the rails. Bruised and understandably distraught after the accident, the young mother was taken to the home of Mrs. Sarsfield who had found her at the site of the accident to recuperate. A telegram was sent to her husband, Henry McClure, who hastened to Ottawa, arriving on the Sunday after the accident.
There were other tragic tales.
Mrs. Jane McNealy, who was travelling from Glasgow with her three children to meet her husband in Edmonton was also killed, while her oldest son James, 18, was severely injured. He was taken to the General Hospital for treatment. Initially not expected to live, he made a surprising recovery and was released a few days later. His younger siblings, Robert, "a bright, red-headed little chap," and his little sister, Maggie, while uninjured, were taken to St. Luke's for observation overnight. They had been separated from their mother and brother, and did not immediately know what had become of them. After receiving news of the death of his wife, their father, Robert McNealy, went the C.P.R. office in Edmonton. In a highly emotional state, he had to be escorted from the premises by the police who held him at the station for several hours. He was later released without charge, and took the train to Ottawa to be with his children and attend his wife's funeral.
Wrecking crews from Ottawa and Smith's Falls were quickly on the scene to help clear the tracks.
Another serious accident was only narrowly averted by the quick thinking of Robert Scott, a brakeman from Smith's Falls, when a large crane car broke free from the wrecking train while it was being manoeuvred into position to upright the wrecked cars. Gathering speed as it went down a hill, Scott stood at the end of the car shouting to rescuers and workmen on the track to get out of the way. Just before the crane itself left the rails at the site of the accident, Scott jumped into a ditch. The crane sank into the soft ground, hitting the wrecked cars but fortunately without any force. Although knocked unconscious for a time, Scott quickly recovered. His first words were to ask if anybody had been hurt. He then asked for nobody to tell his wife.
Immediately after the accident and through the afternoon and night, thousands of Ottawa residents descended on the accident site to watch the wrecking crews recover the mangled cars and clear the tracks. Many walked on top of the toppled cars to get a better view. So huge were the crowds, the Ottawa Electric Railway laid on extra streetcars on the Britannia route. At midnight, there were still several hundred gawkers on site. The track was reopened early the next morning.
An inquiry was immediately launched into the cause of the train accident.
The coroner focused on three possibilities: a defect in the train; a defect in the roadbed; or a "sun kink."
A sun kink occurs when the heat of the sun warms the track sufficiently that the iron rails bow out. However, the inquiry was hampered by the refusal of the Railway Commission to allow its expert to testify on the extraordinary grounds that they don't work for the public. While its experts investigated every train accident on behalf of the board, their findings were reported in confidence and then shared with the railway company which made changes if required to help prevent further accidents.
While a sun kink, a rare phenomenon, was believed initially to have been the cause of the accident, during the inquest the conductor noted that there had been no sign of a kink as the train approached the accident site. As well, one observer thought that a sun kink was unlikely in that location owing to the cooling air off of the Ottawa River. An examination of the rails also showed that they were in perfect alignment both to the east and west of the accident site. Work had been underway to straighten and trim the railway ties in the area. Consequently, it was possible that on descending the grade, the train hit a loose roadbed. Alternatively, there was evidence that something fell from the train which might have caused it to derail.
Some passengers on the train also thought it was going very fast at the time of the accident (about 25 m.p.h.) though speed was not mentioned as a possible contributing factor. Railway officials also disputed a story by Mrs. Bunting that there had been a problem with the train prior to arriving in Ottawa. She had said that the train had come to a grinding stop about three quarters of an hour prior to reaching Ottawa, and that the conductor had rushed through the train saying something had broken. As the train resumed its journey, she had not thought much of the incident until after the train wreck. She admitted, however, that her memory was a bit fuzzy.
In the end, the coroner's jury returned a verdict that the cause of the wreck was "unknown."
Seven of the eight victims of the McKellar train accident were buried in the Beechwood Cemetery. Patrick Mulvenna, the last to be laid to rest, was buried in the Notre Dame Cemetery. Many Ottawa residents came out to bid them farewell.