Ottawa·Special Report

Deadly Ottawa train crash 100 years later

June 25 marks the 100th anniversary of the deadliest rail disaster in Ottawa's history, killing eight people. The CBC's Alistair Steele looks back on the tragic day a century later.

Cause of Winnipeg Express disaster near Ottawa River still a mystery, a century later

The Winnipeg Express chugged out of Montreal at 9:45 a.m. ET on June 25, 1913, hauling 10 cars.

It was shaping up to be a warm, early-summer day and a pleasant trip west. Engineer Albert Chapman had made the journey on the CPR steam locomotive many times.

Three passenger cars nearest the front were packed with immigrants, many of them Scottish and Irish, and many having arrived in Montreal earlier that same morning aboard the S.S. Pretorian. The ship had sailed from Glasgow 10 days earlier but for its weary passengers, the journey was far from over.

The 10 cars

Mail car, baggage car, three "colonial cars," two second-class "tourist cars," a comfortable first-class coach, a dining car and a Pullman. 

"It wasn't much of a welcome to Canada for those people," said rail expert and historian David Jeanes.

"Those immigrants would have essentially been in transit continuously, they would have gotten off a ship, they would have immediately been put on a train, and at most would have had a washroom and waiting room kind of stop in Montreal — not in Ottawa, there were no facilities for handling immigrants in transit in Ottawa — and they would be pretty uncomfortable, and they would not actually be expecting to get off the train and be able to move around much until they reached their destination in the prairies."

Before long the train pulled into Ottawa’s newly built Union Station. It criss-crossed the Ottawa River, making one last stop at Broad Street Station. At 1:30 p.m. the train left the capital, bound for points west.

Passengers seated on the left side of the coaches watched the bustling city give way to bucolic scenery. Passengers on the right side enjoyed the magnificent view of the logging booms on the wide Ottawa River.

The train wreck happened right near the shore of the Ottawa River, which you can see in the background of this archives photo. (Photo courtesy of Library and Archives Canada)

As the train cleared Westboro, it began to gain speed as it approached McKellar Townsite, about five kilometres outside Ottawa. At that point, the CPR track hugged the shoreline of the Ottawa River — rail and water were just metres apart. In the colonist cars, mothers began preparing meals for their hungry children. These were the families going to join fathers and husbands already settled in Winnipeg, Calgary and Edmonton. Single men sat in groups and chatted, or took off their boots and settled in for a nap.

Along Richmond Road, people working in their gardens looked up as the train steamed by. Passengers on the Britannia streetcar watched the train overtake them.

Jerry Gorman was standing in the doorway of his cottage near the water when he saw the cars behind the engine begin to wobble. He heard a loud grinding sound.

"Children and women were leaning out of the car windows and waving to people in the resorts which are situated near the track," the Evening Citizen reported the next day. "Suddenly those who were watching the train pass saw the cars rock and sway, then the train seemed to buckle and twist just as there was a loud noise and the cars left the irons."

The engine and the first three cars remained on the rails. But the next two coaches — both colonist cars packed with immigrants — broke loose and toppled down a steep embankment, plunging into the river below.

"It was from these two cars that all the killed and practically all the injured were taken," the Citizen later reported. "Several were killed outright by the force of being thrown against the inside of the car, but [others] were drowned."

Victims from Scotland, Ireland

Jerry Gorman was first on the scene. Stunned passengers pulled themselves out of broken windows. Others thrashed about in the water. Behind the cars that had tumbled down the embankment, the rest of the coaches jutted and leaned at dangerous angles. The wailing of the injured and terrified filled the air. Gorman raced over to Andrew McKellar’s big stone house to telephone for help.

8 train wreck victims
  • Matilda McClure, 10 months old (County Antrim, Ireland).
  • John McClure, 5 years old (County Antrim).
  • Maggie McClure (County Antrim).
  • Jane McNealy (Glasgow, Scotland).
  • John Peace (Glasgow).
  • John Hogg (County Derry, Ireland).
  • John Moodie (Orkney Islands, Scotland).
  • Patrick Mulvenna (County Antrim).

Within minutes, the air was filled with different noises: the clang of ambulance bells and the honking of automobile horns. The tollgate on Richmond Road was thrown wide open and doctors and nurses rushed to the scene of the wreck. It’s estimated half of Ottawa's medical professionals were there that afternoon, tending to the injured.

Hundreds of residents also arrived to offer help. Some clambered on top of the upended cars to join the train’s crew and other volunteers in the desperate search for survivors. Others brought blankets to comfort anyone with soaked clothing.

Passengers who’d been hurt in the crash were loaded into ambulances, or carried in private automobiles and horse carts to St. Luke’s and Water Street Hospitals in Ottawa. The next day more than 50 patients remained there, recovering from their injuries. Long lists of those hurt in the wreck appeared in local newspapers alongside their age, their place of origin, and vivid descriptions of their wounds.

Eight of the train’s passengers suffered a worse fate. Their bodies lay near the wreckage, covered with sheets provided by nearby residents. A Bishop Charlebois who happened to be on board performed last rites to the Catholic victims. Some of the bodies were so badly mangled they could only be identified by items in their pockets. Others appeared untouched. Those were the ones who had drowned.

According to newspaper reports, only Patrick Mulvenna was carried out of the wreck alive, dying on his way to hospital.

"Very little is known about where he was going, or what he was going to do with his new life," said Gerry Mulvenna, whose grandfather was Patrick's younger brother. "But the tragic circumstances can’t help but move you when you read about it. To travel 10 days, then just when you’ve arrived for that terrible accident to happen, and for news to filter back home … it must have been devastating."

Mulvenna was the last of the victims to be buried, a week after the wreck. A newspaper report notes there were no relatives at his funeral.

"For the family that must have been pretty hard, too," said Gerry Mulvenna. "To grieve without having a funeral … you know funerals would be very important in Ireland, so that’s a part of the story that must have been very hard."

The train wreck was a tragedy, but it was also a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle that gave residents something to talk about for years to come.

"Hundreds of local residents came out to look at the accident," said Jeanes. "They crowded all around it, they even stood on top of the passenger cars that were in the river, and there are many photographs showing these huge crowds coming out to look at the accident scene."

Indeed, photographs from the time show ladies with parasols and men in fashionable white straw hats crowding the shoreline, standing right beside the overturned cars.

"Thousands of people from the city went to the scene of the accident," reported the Citizen. "The rush started immediately after the message had been sent out for doctors and continued till late at night."

There were so many people trying to reach McKellar Townsite the Ottawa Electric Company put on extra streetcars.

"The lawns and gardens around many of the nearby residences were ruined by people trampling over them," the Citizen claimed.

The crowd reached its peak in the early evening, but hundreds remained at midnight to watch the wrecking crew. Not everyone stood and gawked. Many residents opened their doors to families stranded after the wreck. Religious and nationalist societies extended helping hands to their brethren and countrymen. The Canadian government stepped in to offer aid to survivors and to notify their families back home.

Some newspaper reports claimed CPR also offered survivors financial support, provided they sign a strict waiver guaranteeing against future legal action. There was also the task of reuniting passengers with their luggage. Many of the immigrants had emerged from the wreck with only the clothes on their backs, losing whatever meagre possessions they’d brought with them to start a new life.

Almost immediately, the railway began picking up the pieces. A breakdown crew hauled the engine and other damaged cars to Britannia. Meanwhile, a special train was prepared in Ottawa and routed through Kemptville, so those passengers who were able to continue their journey west could do so the very next day. Engineer Albert Chapman even drove, picking up where he’d left off. Within two days of the disaster, the colonist cars had been pulled from the water and the track was repaired, as though nothing had happened.

So what did happen? There were persistent rumours that moments before the crash a section gang had been repairing the track and left the job unfinished. Minor rail officials denied it, telling the Citizen the nearest crew was working two miles away.

"The cause of the accident is not definitely known but it is attributed to a loose rail or to what is known in railway parlance as a 'sun kink,'" the newspaper reported the next day. "That is where the heat causes the steel rails to expand so they have a tendency to bulge out and shoot out of place."

A coroner’s inquest was opened. The Railway Commission also launched an investigation into the cause of the wreck, including an inspection of the track and interviews with railway employees. The results of the investigation were considered confidential and were not made public.

"Well you can’t help but be moved," said Gerry Mulvenna, who spoke via Skype from his home in Edinburgh, Scotland. "For Pat to make it [to Canada] and just die on his first day in the new country that he had emigrated to, it’s awfully sad."