From The Scrap Book
February 16, 1990
By: Dr. Bill Randall
The Train Wreck Of 1919
Like many young men of the Harvey area Hazen Patter son was attracted to early employment on the railroad. He left home at the age of seventeen, during the Great War of 1914 – 1918 and worked for four years on the railroad.
At the age of 96 he’s my best ‘color commentator’ for the Scrapbook. Having been a lumber contractor for much of his life I expected to get lots of old-time lumber camp stories, but Hazen would much rather talk about the railroad and his early memories there. Unfortunately for me, the terminology of the railroad way of life is unfamiliar and its difficult for me to get a clear picture of what Hazen’s talking about.
One of the most dramatic wrecks that Hazen clearly re members was the Onawaua Wreck of 1919. Onawaua was a name given to a section of the railroad near Onawaua Lake in Maine through which, of course, gains travelling from McAdam Junction on to Megantic would pass. In December of 1919, there was considerable railroad traffic. The St. Lawrence River was closed to shipping and commerce was moving by rail to Saint John, N. B., a daily aver age of forty-one trains. East bound, the traffic was export freight; wheat, farm machinery, metals and clothing bound for Europe. Westbound, passenger business predominated; settlers and homesteaders heading west. With Christmas only five days away, passenger traffic was heavily in creased. On the morning of December 20th, train number 39, running in five sections was bringing the passengers of the Empress of France, from their docking in Saint John, west towards Montreal.
At the same time, freight train number 78 was on a siding at Moosehead waiting for the first two sections of 39 to pass. The freight’s conductor (according to an item written by Walter M. MacDougall and in the possession of Hazen) was I.A. Manual, a nineteen year veteran of the road; the engineer was William Bagley with twenty-seven years of experience and the brakeman was Earl Austin, working as a spare. The freight, with twenty-six cars had been making slow progress east, having to pull into sidings and give right-of-way to the passenger trains. She waited two hours for the first section of train number 39 which displayed green lanterns indicating that section two was to follow. An hour later the second section passed. Conductor Manual had reason for impatience because Federal law restricted trainmen’s work day to sixteen hours. It began to look like the freight crew would run out of time. Manual called dispatcher ‘Shaw and received instructions to wait longer for Extra Number 3470. This train would deliver further orders to the waiting freight as it went by. The order received from the Extra read: first number 39, engine 818 late; second number 39, engine 852 on block; third number 39, engine unknown running five hours late.
With this information called a ‘late order’ Manual and Bagley could move their freight train eastward as long as it was on a siding and clear of the main line five minutes before the passenger train was due at that point. The dispatcher, Shaw, now had nine active trains on his sub-division and was anxious for the freight to finish her run and get out of the way. At 6:40 AM, train 78 pulled out of Greenville, going East to ward Brownville Junction.
Meanwhile, third number 39 was in Brownville Junction where she had stopped to receive orders and to change crews and engines. Engineer Fred Wilson of Harvey inspected his engine and climbed into the cab with fireman Henigar. Fred Wilson’s brother Bill, of York Mills, had been killed in a train wreck the year before – 1918.
The conductor, Charles Dillon, was to display signals that a fourth section was following and would run five hours late from Brownville. Third number 39 left the junction at 6:25 AM and twenty-six minutes later dropped off her work-staff at Barnard Station. Meanwhile, operator Kingdon, at Morkill, was filling out a clearance card for the freight train. The order read: Third number 39, engine 783 – late; fourth number 39, engine unknown – running eight hours late. Operator Kingdon handed the first copy of the order to the brakeman Austin, who passed the order through the cab window to engineer Bagley. Reading the order, Bagley told the brakeman they now had eight hours on third 39. In short, Bagley had misread the order – it was fourth 39 that was running eight hours late.
Freight number 78 started east on the line. Third number 39 started west on the line. Passengers on 39 were stirring. A mother from Manitoba was feeding her baby son while her three year old daughter played with her rag-doll. Another family, enroute to a new home in Winnipeg was digging in a basket for breakfast. In the colonist car, just to the rear, the slat seats were being brought back to a sitting position after service as bunks.
Walter MacDougall, in his notes, writes, “It was 7:09 AM as the train passed Onawaua Station and daylight was coming on rap idly. At 7:13 AM, as the freight rounded the sharp curve beside Little Greenwood Pond at a speed of 25 miles an hour, engineer Bagley slammed the air brake into emergency position. Brakeman Austin caught sight of the approaching locomotive – now only 100 feet ahead.” Bagley yelled, “Better jump boys.” It was a terrifying moment, remembers Earl Austin. The engineer left the engine cab from the right side, but with only a rock wall on the left Austin could see no place to go so he simply hung on. He said it seemed to him there were three shocks: the locomotives inter locking; the second paralyzing and the third driving him into the ground.
The tender of third number 39 crushed forward against the firebox of the engine. Just behind the baggage car was a tangle of smashed wood and bent steel. The first coach telescoped the
in-rushing colonist car at about the height of the seat backs. The remains of the first two cars were lying in swirling steam and smoke around the wrecked loco motives. The first eight cars of
the freight train lay accordion fashion, piled against the rock face of the cliff. Nineteen passengers were dead or dying; fifty-nine were injured, one of whom was to die later. The two firemen had been instantly killed and both engineers, one incased in the wreckage of his engine, the other buried under a car of wheat.
Miraculously, about an hour later Earl Austin, who had been catapulted from the freight’s engine woke up amidst the hissing steam and coal dust under one of the engine’s driving wheels. In shock and only vaguely aware of his situation, clothes almost completely torn off, Austin stumbled past the wrecked coach cars to the rear of the passenger train. As Austin crawled out of the debris, Owen Chase, a dead-heading engineer, who had been in number 78’s caboose with Manual, stared in disbelief at a man who had survived the impact point of the wreck; a severe cut on his left leg and the 18 degrees below zero temperature.
The accompanying picture was taken at the scene after cranes had cleared the track. Years later, passing train crews could look down over the banks and see the rusting and twisted re minders of the tragic accident. Hazen Patterson, on cold, damp days, tries to massage the discomfort of a broken wrist he acquired from a similar though much less tragic accident in 1917. He, like Earl Austin, had been catapulted out of the locomotive window during a train collision.
Source: Rev. Bill Randall’s “From The Scrapbook Vol. One.”