When I walk the Bayfront Park trail, Waterfront Trail to Princess Point, or even along any of the other walks, I enjoy the beautiful vista looking west across to the “high level bridge” over the Desjardins Canal. I can see and hear birds, traffic and trains. And I often think about what it was like 160 years ago when a train tumbled from that bridge and fell onto the ice and into the bay.
March 12, 1857 a Great Western Train was traveling from Toronto to Hamilton. It had made several stops along the way picking up and dropping off passengers. About 90 people were on board. As it neared the bridge, an axle broke. The train tipped and crashed onto the wooden frame of the swing bridge tumbling onto the frozen ice below. Fifty-nine or sixty people died and, it seems to me miraculously, 18-20 were rescued! (Numbers differ according to differing accounts)
At the time the railway was important to building Canada. Trains moved people and goods, linked communities, and served industry. There was a major switching yard just below Dundurn Castle. The story is that a railway worker was watching for the train, expected soon. He was watching the steam from the engine, then it suddenly stopped and a sort of “dust” appeared. He raised the alarm.
Hundreds of people, many employees of Great Western, rushed to the scene. Survivors had begun the rescue effort. The water was covered with 2 feet of ice. The engine, tender, baggage car and the 2 first class passenger cars were first to land. The engine and tender broke through the ice, the baggage car was thrown aside, the first passenger car fell on its roof and broke through the ice. The last car fell on its end and stayed that way.
Seventeen of the sixty dead were from Hamilton – including city alderman Donald Stuart. Adam Ferrie, the newly married son of Colin Ferrie, Hamilton’s first mayor was one of those on board and died in the crash leaving behind his young bride, who was 4 weeks pregnant.
A large public funeral was held and March 16, 1857 was declared an official day of mourning by the City of Hamilton.
March 12 is the 160th anniversary of the train disaster at the Desjardins Canal Bridge.
End of the Line by Don McIver – Dundurn Press 2013
Hamilton Public Library http://www.hpl.ca/articles/desjardins-canal-disaster
Canadian Encyclopedia http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/great-western-rail-disaster-feature/