Remembering a disaster
It was considered among the worst train disasters for its time in Canada, and it happened in the Ottawa Valley.
On the evening of Dec. 27, 1942, a tightly packed passenger train, known as the Pembroke Local, was ready to leave the Almonte train station when it was overtaken and rammed by a troop train carrying soldiers bound for Europe.
The troop train, all 1,000 tons of it, had departed from Red Deer, Alberta and was en route to Halifax, where the fighting men would embark for England and the war effort. It had a tight schedule to meet, and the train crew was unaware its more powerful engine was enabling it to close the gap between the two trains much quicker than anticipated.
Bad weather, a well worn engine and a heavy load of holiday travelers returning to work after Christmas all slowed the civilian train down. The train had three extra wooden passenger cars added to the back to take on the extra payload. It took far longer to load the train than usual, the effort using up precious minutes.
A long curve took the troop train into Almonte. By the time the engineer and the crew spotted the extra-long Pembroke Local and hit the brakes, it was too late to stop.
The impact demolished the last two cars in the train, and cut the third one in half, while breaking the back of the rest of the train. A total of 39 passengers died as a result of the collision, both on scene and later in hospital, with more than 200 injured.
The O'Brien Theatre became a hospital and morgue dur to its close proximity to the wreck, and many residents as well as the soldiers on the train lent their assistance.
In the official inquiry, blame was placed on the Canadian Pacific Railroad and the crew of the passenger train, although no charges were ever laid. The train crew were pointed out for not using the proper flares at the end of the train, to warn others overtaking it it was slower.
CPR was blamed for the fact a secondary station, which could have diverted the troop train onto an alternate rail line, was unmanned that night, as the person stationed there had closed up.
An extra signal was installed near the curve approaching the station, to give trains a bit more warning when heading into Almonte. After that, no more accidents of this magnitude occurred along that rail line.
The tragedy affected a wide swath of communities across the region, many of the residents rode the train regularly to get to jobs they had in Ottawa. Those killed and hurt came from prominent families along the entire length of the Ottawa Valley.
This was the topic of the latest in Algonquin College's Speaker's Series, the first for 2018. This year, the series will be dedicated to local history.
The first presentation, on Remembering the Almonte Train Accident, was done in partnership with the North Lanark Museum.
Melissa Alexander, the museum's program coordinator, said for ages there was nothing to mark the site of the tragedy until 2002, when the North Lanark Historical Society commemorated the 60th anniversary of the accident with a monument. A decade later, that monument became a gathering place for a candlelight memorial marking the 70th anniversary.
“In 2012, the historical society was surprised at the large number of people who attended who were on the train at the time of the disaster,” she said.
When the 75th anniversary was marked in 2017, the historical society decided to record and preserve the memories of the survivors and their families, storing these video interviews into a digital
archive. Alexandewr said if anyone happens to be a survivor, or are related to a survivor and heard the stories about the Almonte train wreck, to please contact the museum. She said they would love to hear the stories, or see photographs of the time.
Upcoming lectures in this historical series include The Flying Bandit, Gilbert Galvin, who used Pembroke as his base, and PemAir as his means to travel out to Canadian communities and rob 59 banks and jewelry stories in the 1980s before being caught. That lecture is scheduled for Mach 19 at 7 p.m.
On June 14 at 6:30 p.m., Bruce Pappin will speak about the Great Pembroke Fire, which marks its 100th anniversary this year. On June 18, Pappin will conduct a walking tour of Pembroke's downtown, pointing out areas which were affected by the fire, and explaining how the city was rebuilt.
The series will wrap up with Jamie Bramburger, who on Dec. 5 at 7 p.m. will speak about 100 years of Pembroke's hockey history, and how the city earned the title of Hockey Town.