Published in The Westmount Examiner on March 19, 2009.
All in all, St. Patrick’s Day 1909 was not a particularly pleasant happening in Montreal. In fact, this year marks the one hundred anniversary of a tragedy of a rather unusual nature that befell this city and cost the lives of several innocent people.
Briefly, around 8:30 the morning of March 17, 1909, an overnight train from Boston with 200 passengers aboard was commencing its final approach into Montreal’s Windsor Station. Suddenly, an explosion in the engine car occurred. A broken spring hanger on locomotive No. 2102 caused it to lurch. As a consequence, a driving wheel struck open a plug, occasioning steam as well as piping hot water to pour forth from the burst boiler. Severely scalded, both the engineer, Mark Cunningham, and the fireman, Louis Craig, jumped from the fast-moving train in Westmount. Only Craig survived that desperate act.
Oblivious to the unfolding drama in the lead car, Conductor Arthur H. Harvey signalled to the engineer that a passenger wished to disembark at the Westmount Station. There was no response as the train barrelled through that same terminal at an estimated 85 – 90 kilometres an hour.
With no Casey Jones at the throttle and with the grade into Windsor Station from Westmount all down hill, the train seemed only to gain in speed.
At the last minute, sensing something horribly wrong, Brakeman Joseph A Don activated the emergency air brakes at about Guy Street. This, on its own, was not sufficient, however, to prevent the train from careering out of control into the terminal, easily breaking through the safety buffer found at the end of the track, before crashing through the Ladies Waiting Room and finally coming to a halt on the main concourse of the station itself. Part of the immobilized locomotive actually penetrated the southern most wall of the depot in question, clearly visible to all those curiosity seekers who had gathered at the site.
The result of the accident was truly catastrophic. Mr. W. J. Nixon of 143a Ash Street, Pointe St. Charles, lost his wife and both children (the younger of the two was actually decapitated) – all three meeting death while waiting for him in the Ladies’ Waiting Room, a portion of which was altogether levelled by the force of the violent impact.
In a strange twist of fate, a third child, one Elsie Villiers, a survivor of the infamous Hochelaga School fire which cost the lives in February of 1907 of sixteen pupils and their heroic teacher Sarah Maxwell, was killed instantly when hefty debris fell upon her as a consequence of the calamitous collision within that same waiting room. Miss Villiers, 12, was with her grandmother at the time of the accident and, for one reason or another, she was taken -dead- to
the Royal Victoria Hospital where her heart-broken family collected (as was the custom of the day) her badly battered remains.
The fifth fatality was the engineer, Mark Cunningham, who expired a few hours later in the Montreal General Hospital, then located at Dorchester and St. Dominique. Eleven other individuals were gravely injured and, as a result, taken to nearby city hospitals.
Interestingly, until these dismal events of that late winter morning, over 500,000 trains had arrived and departed from that same station since its official opening in February of 1889 without the slightest incident. Indeed, the prestigious passenger terminal had been triumphantly expanded only a few years before the 1909 St. Patrick’s Day drama and once again a few years after.
Nothing in its glorious history could have foreshadowed such a debacle.