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This article was published 26/7/2015 (753 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
In a few months, it will be the centenary of Manitoba's second-deadliest rail disaster. Nineteen people were killed in the Brandon Train Wreck, as it was called, when two trains collided in the heart of the city.
The crash happened on the morning of Jan. 12, 1916. It was a brutally cold day, with a high temperature of just -36 C. In Brandon's Canadian Pacific Railway yard, ice fog mixed with smoke from locomotives and industrial facilities along the tracks to create near-zero visibility.
That morning, a "snow train" was working in the yard. It consisted of 10 cars plus a caboose and was manned by the train's crew, a gang supervisor and more than 20 temporary labourers hired by the CPR to shovel snowdrifts from the tracks. The labourers were referred to as "Austrians," although they were from modern-day Ukraine and Poland.
At around 10 a.m., the snow train began slowly making its way along a "Y track" to cross onto the mainline. At the same time, a livestock train destined for Winnipeg was departing the yard on the mainline. Both trains were travelling at a crawl, neither of them exceeding 10 km/h. At 10:05 a.m., enveloped in fog and smoke, the crew of the livestock train felt a strong jolt. It wasn't enough to knock them off their feet, but they knew they had struck something.
When they emerged, they saw the devastation. Their train had sideswiped the snow train just as it was merging with the mainline. Their steel locomotive lifted two flatbed cars off the tracks and pushed them onto the caboose, crushing it.
It turned out more than a dozen of the labourers had crammed into the caboose to escape the cold. All of them were killed. Others, who had been walking alongside the train or riding on the flatbed cars, lay dead or injured nearby.
As the Brandon Daily Sun noted, "news of the accident spread like wildfire." People with medical training from around the city went to the site. Another caboose was brought alongside to act as transportation for the injured, and the gas company offered its plant, located just off the tracks, as a makeshift hospital.
Word soon reached the families of the men, many of whom lived in "the flats," a shanty-like settlement along the northern edge of the yards. The Daily Sun reported "Soon there was a crowd of women from the flats volubly inquiring as to the fate of their husbands, sons and brothers."
The extreme cold hampered rescue attempts and may have caused the death of some of the injured. Another three men died in the hours after the crash, as did at least two more over the next couple of days, bringing the death toll to 19. Many who survived the crash suffered serious injuries, with some losing fingers and feet to frostbite.
The coroner's inquest began the next day in Brandon's city hall chambers. Because so many of the witnesses were still in hospital, it was an abbreviated opening session with just a handful of people called, including the yard supervisor, a dispatcher and some of the crew from the livestock train.
The livestock train's conductor testified he had been warned there was a snow train working in the yard and that he proceeded at a slow speed as a precaution. He did not expect to come across the snow train so quickly, just a couple of minutes after pulling out. He said because of the fog and smoke, they could not see the other train in time to stop. The crash could not be avoided.
The inquest resumed two weeks later, on Jan. 25, when more witnesses were available. The city hall gallery was packed, and many people had to be turned away.
Members of the snow train's crew were called. They testified they had received no notice another train would be pulling out of the yard that morning. When asked if he had thought of issuing a warning, the foreman of the yard replied, "No, not me. The crew of the snow train should look after their own safety. I expect every man to look after his own train. I could not look after all the trains."
It was noted there was no flagman on duty in the yard that morning to walk trains onto the mainline. This was not a legal requirement, but a safety precaution that was available most days. It was likely too cold to have a man out there that day and, given the fog, he may not have been able to prevent the crash. Still, it was seen as another reason extra precautions should have been taken.
The jury returned their verdict later that day after just one hour of deliberation. They exonerated both crews and put most the blame on the CPR. Their decision opened with: "We find that the accident was caused by the negligence of the Canadian Pacific Railway company in not safeguarding trains working in the yards and to which the inclemency of the weather contributed to a considerable extent."
D.C. Coleman, the assistant general manager of the CPR, attended the inquest. He called the jury's findings unjust and tried to pin the blame on the crews and yard staff. "If the safeguards provided in the train rules had been observed by certain individuals, the accident would not have occurred," he told the Winnipeg Tribune.
Though Brandon's police chief was at the inquiry so he could take into custody should anyone found to be at fault, no followup stories could be found in any of Manitoba's daily newspapers indicating any punishment was meted out as a result of the disaster.
Train crashes were commonplace during this era. That same month, there were two others in the province that claimed lives. One happened in St. Boniface just two weeks after the Brandon disaster. It killed three men on a work train under very similar circumstances.
There was a sense the Brandon disaster was different, not just because of the number of lives lost, but because of who the victims were. They were poor, immigrant day labourers, not CPR employees. The families of the dead and injured were not entitled to the few benefits that would be available to railway employees under the same circumstances. As the Manitoba Free Press noted, "Some of them had very large families whose sufferings promise to be very acute if something isn't done for them in the immediate future."
There are indications that, in the short term at least, they did get support not only from the local Galician community, but from the city has a whole. A group of Brandon's "society ladies" took it upon themselves to help co-ordinate incoming donations of clothing, food and other supplies.
For many who survived the crash, there was little choice but to go back to work as labourers for the railway in order to earn enough money to feed their families and heat their homes. The Daily Sun wrote of a survivor named Mike Shadlock who returned to work the next day, only to collapse in the yard. It turned out he had suffered severe frostbite to his feet on the day of the crash, but instead of seeking medical attention -- which likely would have included amputations -- he tried returning to his job instead.
As many of the men were Catholic, a number of the funerals were held at St. Augustine of Canterbury Roman Catholic Church on 4th Street. From there, the bodies were taken to Brandon's municipal cemetery where, sadly, it was left to four fellow Ukrainian labourers employed by the city to prepare the burial sites.
Little is known about the men who died or their families. Newspapers of the day rarely provided the same level of coverage for poor immigrant deaths as they did for others in society. None of their photos were published, and only the sparsest of biographical information was provided for a handful of the men. One exception was the Scottish-born supervisor killed in the caboose, 38-year-old George McGhie, who left behind a wife and two sons, aged three and 14.
The men who died were identified in newspaper accounts and cemetery records, and on gravestones (with various spellings and ages), as Michael Balawyder (28), Wasyl Balicki (31), Stephen Batycki (37), Juzef Bielawski (37), Joe Dryla (16), Stephen Greskow (38), Anthony Jarnowski (30), Ignace Kurcharski (44), John Lacarski (25), John Lisawski (29), Shenik Lowestian (29), Andrew Malnozok (30), Alex Meskowski (51), Harry Moroz (40), Mike Robeck (50), Tony Rutkowski (50), Anthony Rzemyk (20) and Wasyl Sojczik (27).
The graves of all of the men, except McGhie, can be found in the same row of Section 20 in Brandon's municipal cemetery. Only five of the graves in Section 20 have headstones; the rest are unmarked.
The Brandon Train Wreck remained Manitoba's deadliest rail disaster for more than three decades, surpassed only by the Dugald Train Disaster of 1947. Sadly, unlike Dugald, there is no memorial or marker near the crash site or at the cemetery to commemorate those who died in Brandon.
Christian Cassidy writes about local history on his blog, West End Dumplings.