THIS MONTH IN RAILROAD HISTORY (October 15/99)

In his history of railways in Nova Scotia, W. W. Clarke wrote that on October 30, 1889, the “first engine, No. 2, crossed the Cornwallis Bridge with ballast for the C.V.R. (Cornwallis Valley Railway).”

While this is a relatively insignificant historical event, the fact that it took place in October is meaningful. In the long history of the Dominion Atlantic Railway, October has been a significant month. It was in October when the idea for a railway in Nova Scotia was broached for the first time in a provincial newspaper.

Speaking on behalf of Thomas Chandler Haliburton, the fictional character Sam Slick promoted a railway that would link Halifax with the rest of the province. In the first instalment of The Clockmaker in The Nova Scotian, Slick starts off a long harangue on the benefits of a railway with, “Let them make a railroad to Minas Basin and they will have arms of their own to feed themselves with.”

This was one of the first shots fired in what would amount to nearly 20 years of negotiations to start a railroad in Nova Scotia. This was in October (1835) a month when events trivial and great would occur. Clarke’s history records, for example, that on October 1, 1894, the Windsor and Annapolis Railway took over the Yarmouth and Annapolis Railway, an amalgamation that became the Dominion Atlantic. This is a significant event. On the trivial side is Clarke’s note that on October 25, 1908, the Wolfville station and freight shed burned down.

In the month of October, there occurred one of the greatest natural disasters to strike the railway in Nova Scotia. This was the Saxby Gale of 1869. Clarke comments on the devastating effect of the gale in a single paragraph, while Marguerite Woodworth, in her Dominion Atlantic Railway history, goes into detail. From Clarke: “On the fourth of October, 1869, the (railway) tracks were badly damaged by the Saxby Gale. The dykes at Grand Pre were broken and the tide swept away the road bed. At this point trestle work had to be put in to allow the water to pass through and save more of the road from washing out.”

Woodworth wrote that “on the night of October 4, 1869, the wind rose until it became a veritable hurricane and with it came a great tide from the Minas Basin, rolling in over the dykes and carrying everything before it.”

This is an October both railroad and history buffs have marked due to its disastrous effect on the fledgeling railway and local communities. Woodworth leaves little to the imagination when she describes the destruction:

“Throughout the Valley orchards were laid low, the apples torn from the branches, uprooted trees lay across the highway; crops were flattened; brooks became swirling torrents. The most sorry spectacle was the line of railway between Kentville and Horton. Bridges, tracks and fencing had been swept away over an area of nearly 20 miles; the dykes along the right of way were nothing but a turbulent sea and the railbed had crumpled before the tidal wave like sugar.”

For several days the high tides swept more of the new railbed away, setting construction behind by several weeks. The October storm was the beginning of three months of high tides. Following the October gale, storms and high tides in November and December washed the railbeds away again. Students of the railroad mark the October, 1869, gale because of its devastation.

Although forgotten, another October event had a more lasting effect. Woodworth calls it “that day in October when Sir Charles Tupper invited the English capitalists to attend a meeting of the Nova Scotia Fruit Growers’ Association in Wolfville and find out for themselves the importance of building a railway.”

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