“Yesterday evening the people of Hamilton were startled by the news that a terrible accident had happened on the Grand Trunk Railway, near Dundas, and the reports circulated at first were great exaggerated, the number of killed being variously estimated from 200 to 50”
Hamilton Times. February 16, 1885
While the initial reports may have been wildly inaccurate as to the number of fatalities, there was no doubt that a terrible railway disaster had occurred just west of the Bayview junction of the Grand Trunk railway line.
The Pacific Express was a through train, running about two hours’ behind schedule when it made a stop at Hamilton’s Grand Trunk Railway station at 4:45 p.m., February 15, 1883. The express train hooked up with a pilot engine, the second locomotive necessary to help the train make the long, heavy grade up the escarpment behind Dundas.
A Day express from the west, heading for Hamilton was also running late, but only between 8 or 10 minutes behind schedule. It would descend the escarpment behind Dundas on the same line which the Pacific Express was to use.
Usually the express from the west would remain a few minutes at the Dundas station after any passengers would get off or others might get on. But as it was running late, its stop was very brief.
A dispatcher in London belatedly realized that the express from the west had to be held up in Dundas long enough to allow the Pacific Express to pass by. A frantic telegraph was sent to the Dundas station to hold up the express but it had already passed that station’s semaphore signal. Running out onto the platform, the telegraph operator's shouts could not be heard, nor could his waving arms be seen in misty semi-darkness.
The telegraph operator at Hamilton’s Grand Trunk Railway received the same message from London but when he went out on to the platform there, he could only watch the end of the Pacific Express disappearing over the Desjardins bridge.
At a point a mile and a half east of Dundas, on a curve, the Day Express impacted with the Pacific express, which was being assisted by a pilot engine. The collision left three locomotives and several cars in a shattered state.
A reporter from the Hamilton Times was given a description of scene of the accident immediately after it happened. His recounting of what he was told follows:
“The scene which ensued when the locomotives came together is said to have been beyond description. The hissing of steam from the wretched locomotives, mingled with the cries of those who were wounded, will never be forgotten by those who heard them. An instant and three ponderous locomotives lay completely wrecked across the track. The two belonging to the Pacific had their heads completely turned to the north, and lay side by side all broken up.
“The engine of the Day express turned to the south and also lay on its side. The baggage car of this train was lifted from its trucks and was leaning over as if about to topple into the ditch.
“Taking it all in all, the wreck was one of the worst which has ever been seen on the Great Western Division of the system.” 1
1 “A Railway Disaster : Two Grand Trunk Trains Collide Near Hamilton : A Disastrous Smash” Hamilton Times. February 16, 1883.
Farmers living in the vicinity of the wreck were quick to get to the scene to offer assistance, and help from Hamilton arrived not long afterwards. It was only with near-superhuman efforts on the part of the rescuers that many of the unfortunate passengers trapped in the wrecked cars were freed.
But soon another danger presented itself:
“As the work of rescue was going on, a portion of the woodwork took fire, adding to the terrors of the situation, but it was speedily extinguished”1
Hamilton doctors including Drs. Malloch, Husband. Mackelcan and others had been taken to the scene in an auxiliary train.
They were working on the injured when a body was found of a man who no longer needed their assistance:
“Only one passenger was killed. He had been sitting in the smoking car near the end, and his head was jammed in a fearful manner. He was identified as Charles Douglas, a commercial traveller for Burr & Skinner, furniture manufacturers, of Guelph.
“The body was laid out on the bank and afterwards placed into one of the other cars and brought to Hamilton by the auxiliary.”1
The only other fatality was a Hamiltonian, Edward Mason engineer of the pilot engine:
“At the time of the collision, it is said, he was sitting in the seat of the cab with one leg over the end and one leg over the side, and was not on the lookout from the fact that the view here (on the curve) is impeded.
“His fireman, Frank Williams, caught a glance of the headlight of No. 8 and jumped. He landed in the snow on his head, but was not hurt in the slightest.
“Mason’s body was got out and laid on the bank at the side of the engine, and was subsequently taken, by order of Coroner MacMahon, to Dundas, with a view of holding an inquest. His skull was crushed and his features frightfully disfigured. He was also badly scalded through the burning of the water gauge in the engine.”1
The Times reporter conducted several interviews with passengers. Rev. J. S. Williamson of Hamilton was one of them:
“The cries for help, added to the excitement caused by the car taking fire from the stove, made a scene never to be forgotten. One man was so completely covered by the timbers that all that could be seen were the hand and part of the arm, which he kept constantly in motion, showing the man was alive and conscious. The silent motion of the hand was constantly pleading for help. The brave men worked like heroes till all were finally rescued.
“The lifeless form of poor Mason was taken from the cab of his engine, where he had stood at his post till the last, and many, as they passed him, dropped a silent tear, while the words ‘Poor Teddy’ were uttered.”1
Charles Field, also of Hamilton, was also interviewed and part of his statement follows:
“The scene was confusing in the extreme. Nothing could be heard but the loud noise of the escaping steam from the boilers and the shrill shrieks of the women who were fastened among the ruins.
“The two poor German women who had been in the second class cars were crying out pitifully from somewhere in the ruins. A conductor shouted out to them all the German he knew – ‘Yaw, yaw!’ and they shouted ‘Yaw, yaw!’ back to him. The two German women were got out without a great deal of difficulty, and without any broken bones. Their escape was little short of miraculous.”1
There were several other eyewitness statements in the Hamilton Times from passengers, one of the most notable being from a well-known show business personality who was on the Pacific Express, with his horse:
“One of the few passengers in the second class car which telescoped was Lee Von Weste, a German showman. He has been travelling with Forepaugh’s show, with his trick horse Mosquetaire, and exhibited him last week in the Aquarium at New York. He was on his way to Chicago. His horse was in a bonded freight car next to the engine, and he had slipped into the second class car to have a smoke, that being the only smoking car on the train.
“When the collision took place and he was got out of the ruin, the first thing he said was ‘Never mind me; go and save my horse!’
“Mr. Van Weste was badly hurt in the knee and was brought to the Royal Hotel on his arrival in the city.
“A reporter of the Times interviewed him this morning. He is a fine-looking man with an aristocratic manner.
“ He said : ‘Yes, I was very anxious about my horse because, you see, he is the only means I have of making my bread and butter. He is a dancing saddle horse, and is very clever and well-trained.
“ ‘I don’t understand how I escaped with my life; it seems a miracle to me. The car was crowded before the train arrived in Hamilton, but nearly everyone got out there, and when it left there were only seven of us in the car – two Germans with their wives, the young man who was killed, another man and myself. I was sitting in the fourth seat from the front of the car, and the young commercial traveller was sitting in the seat behind me.
“ ‘When the collision came, I seemed to be lifted up through the top of the car, and then driven down it lengthwise. My leg was held fast in the debris, and I had to work hard to get it loose. I heard the cries of the women below me.
“ ‘Finally, I wrenched my leg free and jumped from the wreck down to the ground, where I fainted, but quickly recovered and climbed up the bank. When I got to the top, I fell and could not move any further. At the time of the collision, I had my legs stretched out on the seat in front of. It was lucky I was in this position, for my legs would have been mushed if I had them on the floor.
“ ‘When the collision came I was doubled up, and the seat in front of me came forward and struck me on the breast.’ ”1
The Times added the following about the famous show business personality:
“Mr. Von Weste says that this is not the first time he has been wrecked. He and his family were on board the steamer Satriller when she went down off the coast of England on the 7th of May 1875. All his family were lost and he floated on a door for forty-two hours, when he was picked up by a sailing vessel. On this occasion he lost his whole fortune (consisting of $82,000) besides his family, and was obliged to go into his present business in order to obtain a livelihood. Mr. Von Weste is the husband of Mme. Cottreli, the well-known actress, who is now in New York. The extent of his injuries is merely a badly-bruised leg, which will probably confine him to his bed for two or three days.”1
The Times reporter also included a vivid word picture of what he saw at the Grand Trunk Railway station:
“The platform of the depot was crowded with anxious people who had friends in the outgoing or expected friends on the incoming trains, and the excitement was intense. Every scrap of news that could be gleaned was eagerly caught up and passed from mouth to mouth.
“The excitement reached the highest point when the auxiliary train which went out brought back the dead body of Douglas, and everybody pressed around, anxious to get a glimpse of the body.
“During the night, hundreds of people went to the scene of the disaster, both in rigs and on foot.”1
On Friday, February 16, 1883, a hastily assembled coroner’s jury was assembled. Prior to the jury going into session at the American hotel, the jurors were taken to Blachford and Dwyers’ funeral home on Charles street, where the bodies of Edward Mason and Thomas Stanley Douglas had been laid out side by side.
After the inquest proper began, the first witness to testify was Hugh Walker. As recorded by the Times reporter, his testimony follows:
“Live in Guelph; saw the body now lying at Blachford’s undertakers’ establishment; identify him as Thomas Stanley Douglas; he lived in Clarkson, Munro County, New York; last saw him alive last April; he always enjoyed good health as far as I know; deceased is my son-in-law.” 2
2 “The Railway Disaster : Inquest on Edward Mason and. T. S. Douglas” Times. February 17, 1883.
Next to take the stand was Edward Tinsley:
“Saw the body of Edward Mason; had known him nearly twenty years; last saw him alive on Tuesday morning, about 7:30; he was then, as far as I know, in his usual health; he was an engineer on the G. W. Division of the Grand Trunk railway; he was an engineer on the G. W. R. for fourteen or fifteen years.”2
In answer to a question from the foreman of the jury, Tinsley said “he was considered a steady man and a good engineer, and if he had not been such, he would not have occupied the position so long”
W. G. Stark, M. D. was next called and he provided detailed evidence regarding the condition of the bodies of the two deceased men:
“Have seen the bodies viewed by the jury; in the case of Thomas Stanley Douglas the injuries present were the following : A fracture of the lower jaw. So far as external examination goes, parts of the frontal parricidal and temporal bones of the right side of the head were fractured and driven in, evidently the result of direct violence. The right ear was torn off and other flesh and scalp wounds were visible. The injuries were of such a severe nature that death must have taken place shortly after they were received. In the case of Edward Mason, I found a large scalp wound, extending backward from the forehead several inches, the scalp being reflected some distance from the line of the wound. The body and legs, more particularly on the right side, were severely scalded. From the examination I have made, I am of the opinion that the probable cause of death was inhalation of steam, the external injuries alone not being sufficient to cause immediate death.”2
After the inquest, the Times reporter spoke to the father-in-law and step-father of Thomas Douglas, learning that the deceased was 24 years of age, and had been married three years, leaving a wife and young child. Douglas was on his way to the Guelph area where he had just acquired a new home and farm. He was to send later for his wife and child. His wife was in poor health and had yet to be told of her husband’s death.
The reporter also got the following account of the accident from a fireman on the Day express, Mr. John Sheehy:
“He stated that the train was going at a very rapid speed, as they had orders to pass No. 7 at Hamilton, and he was just about putting in a fire, so that the smoke would have burned off before Hamilton station was reached, when his mate observed : ‘Jack, there’s a section man with a red handkerchief; what’s wrong?’ They both then looked out and distinguished through the fog, which was very dense, the headlight of the approaching train. The engineer grasped the lever, threw it over, put on the air brake, and both jumped, the engineer going over the head of his companion. “I tell you it was a close one,’ observed Sheehy, ‘just three cars passed us when the crash came, and that section man, whoever he was, saved our lives.’ They both were pretty well shaken up, but beyond this, escaped injury. Mr. Sheehy also states that the train from the east was not running at a very high rate of speed, else the loss of life must have been very great. The engines were a complete wreck.”2
By the first of the week following the accident, two events were reported in the same issue of the Times.
First a gang of men were sent to the scene of the wreck to begin the task of stripping the wrecked locomotives and hauling away the debris. Special sidings had to be laid to facilitate the work of removing the wrecked rolling stock.
Secondly, shortly after 3 o’clock in the afternoon, a funeral cortege left the Locke Street home of the late engineer, Edward Mason. The body was enclosed in a handsome casket and the hearse was drawn by a beautiful span of black horses belonging to the undertaking firm of W. M. Chapman and Sons. Mason had been a member of both the Strict Observance Lodge of the Canadian Order of Oddfellows, and United Workmen and Brotherhood of Engineers. Many of his fellow members of both organizations followed the casket from the Locke street home to the cemetery on the Burlington Heights where the remains were interred.