‘Voices from the Past’: The Wanstead train disaster of December 1902

AlvTrainWreck

By Bob McCarthy
Lambton Shield

There are good things that happen and bad things that happen as a part of our heritage. But each one of these happenings is a part of our heritage, even if it is a train crash that takes several lives and causes great suffering.

On the night of Boxing Day, more than a century ago, two trains, one a freight train heading east from Sarnia and the other a passenger train heading west from London to Sarnia, were both steaming along towards each other on the same track.
Jeremiah Simpson might have been the only person to witness the crash as these two trains met shortly after ten o’clock on that wintry night.  
Here is his story.
 
The Wanstead Train Wreck of 1902
What a terrible thing to see. I have relived everything about that night it in my mind so many times. Listen as I tell you what I saw.
I remember that I was just walking home after visiting my beau the next farm over from us. It was a cold, snowy night along the Grand Trunk Railway track between Wanstead and Kingscourt.
I had gone to see what she got the day before for Christmas and then I was asked by her parents if I would like to stay for dinner. Of course, I said yes.
As I walked home that night along the railway track, it was a few minutes after 10:00 o'clock at night on December 26, 1902. I heard a train coming from near the Kingscourt station in the distance and figured it was the Pacific Flier west-bound for Chicago. I figured that the train was probably carrying holiday goers home after spending Christmas with their relatives the day before. 
I thought to myself that the train must have been running late because it usually passes here about 9:30 each night.
I moved back away from the track figuring that I would just stand there and watch the train go by.
All of a sudden, I heard another train coming from the direction of Sarnia to the west. As the two trains thundered down on each other from opposite directions, I remember I said out loud "My gosh, there is only one track." 
Right then I realized that the two trains going in opposite directions were on the same track. Then I remembered that there was a siding near by. One of the trains should have been off on the siding to allow the other train to pass. It looked to me like the freight train was just starting to pull into the siding. But I could tell from where I was that there would not be enough time to get all the cars on to the siding. I suddenly realized that they were going to collide.
I yelled out to both trains to stop, but somehow I knew that they couldn't. I turned and ran far enough away from the tracks to get clear, then looked back and watched the two trains rushing towards each other. There was nothing else that I could do but watch. I have dreamt of this many times since. It was by far the worst sight that I ever saw in my life.
I still remember that night as if it was just yesterday. A blizzard was howling across the bleak and lonely fields on both sides of the railway track. The Grand Trunk's Pacific Express Train Number 5 was hurtling down the line at a great rate of speed, bound for Sarnia. 
I knew the train must be full of passengers returning home and was likely speeding along trying to make up for lost time. It must have left Watford about 10 or 15 minutes before and now was almost to the Wanstead station.
From the west, the light of the locomotive pulling the freight train from Sarnia glimmered through blinding snow.
Lambton's worst ever rail disaster was about to take place right in front of my eyes. The sight was eerily clear even though visibility was probably less than 100 feet due to the falling snow.
From where I stood, it seemed to take forever. It was almost like the two trains were going in slow motion until they finally met with a grinding crash. What I heard and saw at that moment was a sight and sound I will never ever forget. As the two engines collided head on, I looked at my pocket watch. It was ten minutes after ten o’clock on the night after Christmas Day.
Then there was a loud crashing sound as the two trains met, a piercing shriek that just seemed to go on and on for such a long time. I could see that both of the engines were thrown clear of the single railway track. 
There were two day?coaches between the heavily loaded baggage cars and the Pullman cars. As I watched in shock, the rear baggage car of the passenger train telescoped one of the day-coaches to less than half of its original length. The other day-coach and one of the two Pullman cars went off the track. They did not seem to be badly damaged. As I continued to watch, passengers from these cars began to swarm out.
I didn’t know it yet, but more than 20 passengers died instantly and more than 40 were trapped in the wreckage of the two trains. I could see flames as a small fire broke out, but some of the passengers who got out safely from the wreckage were already throwing snow on the flames or beating at the fire with their coats before the fire had a chance to spread. I still couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
I was still so shocked and just couldn’t seem to move from where I was standing until finally, after several minutes, I reacted and rushed down to help in any way I could.
For about three hours, many injured passengers were still pinned beneath the wreckage of the passenger train. With some of the survivors, I worked to help to get them free.
We dug into the heap of debris that had once been passenger cars. Guided by moans and cries from the wreckage, we were able to find those who were hurt and suffering. We pried and chopped them free from the wood and steel barriers which had them pinned. 
Then we carried the wounded tenderly to the two Pullman cars which were quickly designated as temporary hospitals. There they were given what attention was possible before medical help arrived. Several of the passengers had liquor flasks and the most seriously injured were given stimulants.
There were also many passengers suffering from shock. They were led to the Pullman cars as well.
The weather continued to be bitterly cold and the wind and snow continued to howl about us. Everywhere I could hear cries for help. 
By the time that we got some of the injured passengers free, it was too late. Many of the more seriously injured may have died, not as a result of their injuries, but because of exposure to the elements that night.
We soon heard that word had been sent back by telegraph to London about the accident. We were told that relief trains with several doctors would be dispatched to the scene from both London and Sarnia as soon as possible. Our efforts to recover the dead and injured continued. 
By now, five or six bodies had been recovered. One was a young child and another appeared to be a woman about 25 years of age. 
With the other able survivors, I continued to search for others who were injured. I was able to help rescue two young children and their mother and bring them to the pull-man car to be looked after. We continued for several hours to help as many of the survivors as we could.
It was after two in the morning before we had rescued all of the survivors we could reach and moved them out of the bitter cold and into the pull-man cars. 
The surgeons and the wrecking train from Sarnia were the first to reach the scene. The doctors hastened to the wreck through a snow covered field to set up temporary hospitals and began applying emergency dressings to the most serious wounds.
The men of the wrecking crew were able to penetrate deeper into the tangle of wood and steel and free those we had been unable to reach. Soon after, a wrecking train arrived from London with other surgeons.
When all of the injured had been found, an engine was coupled to the Pullman car holding the wounded and readied for the journey to medical care in London, 40 miles away. By then, I was exhausted and left to walk the rest of the way home. It was such an awful tragedy, one which I will never ever forget.
Before I finish, I must tell you about what we all thought at the time was a ministering angel. We soon found that there was a priest on board by the name of Father Gnam. For all of the time that I was there, he was a constant inspiration. 
He kept encouraging all of us who were working at rescuing the injured. But more importantly, he was there to administer last rites to the dead and dying of all faiths. Father Gnam also seemed to be everywhere comforting all of the injured. He had special words of comfort for every one of the children who were injured and was so helpful for children whose parents had been hurt or, even worse, had died in the accident. He certainly seemed like an angel to all of us.”
There was a poem written by Fred Young about this tragic meeting of two trains so long ago. 
Listen while I read it to you.
The Wanstead Disaster
(By Fred Young)
‘Twas Christmas tide, the sun had risen
And set but once since Christmas day;
When heavy laden, one hour late,
The “Flyer” sped westward on her way,

Her passengers returning home
To loved ones, duty, friends and all.
On Christmas scenes each mind did dwell
As pleasant memories they recall,

And little thought as they dashed on
Toward Sarnia, thirty miles ahead,
That ere ten minutes more had passed
Some would be numbered with the dead.

‘Stop number five,’ the message flashed
In fevered haste across the wire,
For down the track all signals stood
At ‘Safety’ for the evening Flyer.

Someone had blundered, unless stopped
That train would meet an awful fate;
For through the storm on single track
Bound eastward, rolled a special freight.

Again the message is sent out,
Dispatcher sits with reeling brain,
‘Say, Kingscourt, are you at your post?
For heaven’s sake, boy, stop that train!’

The answer comes, it seems an age
Although ‘twas but a slight delay,
‘I can’t, she’s just flew past’ he wired
She always has the right of way.

One more slim chance, dispatcher groans,
To danger, now keenly alive,
And Wanstead gets the warning call
‘Stop number five! Stop number five’

He knew they had no agent there
At night because the place was small,
But hoped the day man had stayed late,
And would be there to to hear the call.

But all is still, no answer comes,
He has to leave them to their fate,
His heart grows sick, his brain’s on five.
Crash! Number five has met the freight.

‘Twas awful, pen cannot describe
Nor words portray, the sickening scene,
For twenty-eight met sudden death
Some two score more had wounded been.

Misunderstanding was the cause,
The Flyer’s orders read ‘to through’
But lives were lost and homes made sad
At Christmas tide one-nine-ought-two.
 
HISTORICAL NOTES from the author: 
Jeremiah Simpson is not a real person but his description is based on newspaper accounts of the day. Father Gnam, however, is a real person who happened to be on the train that night and was described as a ministering angel by other passengers.
One of the passengers later described the accident as follows:

‘We were running at about 40 miles an hour when without the slightest warning the two trains met with terrific force. On examination it was found that the two engines were in the ditch. The baggage car was thrown on top of the first class coach, instantly killing a great many, and pinning about fifty other passengers in the debris. The screams, moans and prayers of the injured were heartrending. One poor woman begged that her child be saved as she was dying. The little one was carefully taken from the wreck and will probably recover. The mother was afterwards relieved, but only to die in a few minutes.’
How did something like this happen? There were differing explanations. Following are parts of some accounts that appeared in the newspapers.
Chicago Daily News, December 27, 1902
London, Ontario, Dec. 27 – Victims Pinned Under Wreckage
The trains came together squarely head-on. In a second the express and baggage cars of the passenger train telescoped into the day coach. The day coach was reduced to splinters and fragments back to the last three windows. As it was crowded, the results were terrible. Fire that broke out was quickly smothered. The fire was scarcely worse danger than the cold, however. For three hours or more the maimed passengers were pinned underneath wreckage, crying piteously for help while they suffered exposure to the elements. Exposure undoubtedly hastened the death of some of the more seriously injured and caused the death of some of those who might have been saved. The Pullman cars stayed on the track and were comparatively uninjured although the passengers were severely shaken in the shock.
Caused by Operators Mistake
The accident is said to have been due to the failure of an operator to give orders to the express train to meet the freight at the station. One of the passengers describes the accident as follows: “We were running at about 40 miles an hour when without the slightest warning the two trains met with terrific force. On examination it was found that the two train engines were in the ditch. The baggage car was thrown on top of the first-class coach, instantly killing many and pinning about 50 other passengers in the debris. The screams, moans and prayers of the injured were heart-rending. One poor woman for she was dying begged that her child be saved. The little one was taken from the wreck and probably will recover. The mother was afterwards released but only to die within a few minutes. About 30 people were killed and 40 badly injured, some of whom will die.  
New York Times – December 28, 1902
London, Ontario, Dec. 27
One of the most frightful railway disasters in the history of Canada occurred at 10:10 o’clock last night near Wanstead, a station on the Sarnia branch of the Grand Trunk, 40 miles west of this city, when Express No. 5, known as the Pacific Express, flying westward at the rate of 50 miles an hour and crowded to its capacity with passengers returning to their homes from holiday visits, crashed into an east bound freight that was endeavoring to make a siding to get clear of the express but failed by a minute or two.
The latest estimate of fatalities is 28 killed and 35 or more injured. It is believed that all of the injured will recover. The darkness of night and the raging of a blizzard added horrors to the wreck. Fortunately the fire horror was averted. A fire started in the wreckage of the day coach but it was smothered before it gained any headway.
The Pacific express is a fast train. Last night it was delayed two hours by the heavy travel and at Wanstead it was speeding to make up time. The freight was working slowly east under orders to take the switch at Wanstead and allow the express to pass. In the blinding snow storm neither engineer saw the other train approaching. The freight had just commenced to pull in on the siding when the passenger train came up.
The responsibility for the accident has not been definitely fixed but it is believed to have been due to an operator’s error. The operator at one of the stations where the two trains stopped gave an order to the freight to pass No. 5, the Pacific Express, at Wanstead.
In the system of the Grand Trunk, this order should been duplicated, a copy being given to the conductor and engineer of the express. Instead of this, the conductor of the express received a clearance order, telling them to run right through.
The telegraph operator of Wanstead is not usually on duty at night but last evening happened to be in the office for a short time. He was just going out at the door when he heard the telegraph instrument click and immediately call repeatedly the message, “Stop No. 5", “Stop No. 5". Seizing a lantern the Wanstead operator dashed for the door and as he closed it behind him, he heard the awful crash of the collision half a mile up the track.
Disasters of Ontario
According to Rene Biberstein in his book titled "Disasters of Ontario," the Wanstead train crash of 1902 was the worst calamity in Lambton County’s history, an accident that was fated to happen.
"Railway company dispatchers were struggling to deal with the increased number of trains as well as passengers returning home from spending Christmas with relatives," he writes. "Two trains heading in opposite directions, one freight and one passenger, needed to pass along a single line at the same time. It was decided that they would meet in the town of Wyoming, not far from Wanstead. There, one of them would temporarily switch onto a siding to allow the other to safely pass."
But nature intervened in the form of a winter storm and caused the passenger train to run late, a problem that might have been corrected except for a communications error that sealed the fate of so many of those happy people travelling home on the day after Christmas of 1902.

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  • Tom McKenna

    Thanks for posting this piece of history – very few people to-day remember this tragic event – even when I was a boy growing up in Wyoming Ontario back in the 40’s & 50’s, few people spoke of it. The Railroad at one time was very important to the economy of North Lambton, and for many years, it was possible to travel from Sarnia to London via 3 different rail routes. My Uncle, Arthur YOST, was the last operator at Wanstead, before they closed the station there. This line was later double tracked, which reduced the likelyhood of this happening again considerably, but now in their infinite wisdom, the railroad has reduced it to single track again. Kingscourt, which was about 3 miles east of Wantstead, is now just a memory – It was at Kingscourt that the line to Alvinston and Glencoe branched off. Alvinston to Kingscourt was abandoned and the rails lifted many years before the Alvinston – Glencoe section was removed. After Wantstead closed, my uncle transferred to Alvinston, and he was also the last agent at that location when it was closed out.

  • DIANNE FOSTER

    I HAVE FOUND THIS ARTICLE VERY INTERESTING .I would like to get a copy of it.My father just told me my great grandmothers sisters husband James Kendall died in this crash.He worked on the railway from Windsor to Toronto.

  • THANK you soooooo much for this posting. My second great uncle, Alexander Cameron, brother of Mary Jane Cameron (Mrs. Dr. William Baltimore Lindsay of Strathroy) was killed in that train crash.
    Thanks for the family history. Paton

  • KarenvMcIntosh

    Thanks for this article – My great great grandfather died in the crash – Robert Stevenson – he was returning from London where he had been visiting his daughter and family. His home was in Wyoming. This was never talked about in the family – it was too painful and the story got lost.