EARLY MISHAPS ON THE RAILWAY LINE (May 10/02)

A few months after it opened on June 8, 1855, the Nova Scotia Railway locomotive, along with the tender and two baggage cars, was derailed when colliding with a horse. Reporting on the incident, the Nova Scotian said that none of the 30 passengers on the train, and apparently none of the crew, had been injured.

In her Dominion Atlantic Railway history, Marguerite Woodworth said this was the first railway accident in the province. Describing the “Iron Horse” as rushing “over the unfenced right-of-way sometimes at 40 miles an hour, (and) pulling up at each station with a grinding screech of brakes,” Woodworth gave the impression that it was only matter of time before an accident such as the derailment occurred

There would be accidents more tragic on the railway in future and the derailment in September, 1855, was in a sense prophetic. All through its history, the railway would be plagued by accidents caused by collisions with cows and horses that wandered onto the tracks.

For the most part, Woodworth’s history deals with the railway’s financing and construction. There are many details on the efforts to finance and build the various early lines that would one day amalgamate into the Dominion Atlantic Railway. But along the way Woodworth adds what journalists call “colour” and the “human angle.” The struggle with the elements, for example, among them the near disastrous effects on the line of the Saxby Gale and the great winter storm of 1905.

One of the first fatalities during the building of the railway occurred in 1857 at St. Croix near Windsor. “Two men had been killed when an embankment caved in,” Woodworth said, adding nothing more than that the accident caused labour problems. Apparently, the 1855 derailment caused more concern than the death of men working on the line since no details are given on what would have been a great tragedy in those times.

Thanks to railway buff Leon Barron I have details of two accidents on the railway. From Leon comes a clipping from the Wolfville Acadian of a fatal accident in 1890 at Cambridge. “A very sad accident has cast a gloom over this place,” the Acadian reports reads. “As the freight train from Halifax on Friday last was coming in, Mason Condon attempted to board the engine as it was passing the station. Unfortunately his foot slipped and he fell upon the track immediately behind the engine. Five cars passed over the poor fellow before the train could be stopped.”

After giving the gory details of the accident and reporting on the funeral, the Acadian wound up with a glowing report on how Cambridge was thriving, thanks to the railway.

Another clipping courtesy of Leon Describes an accident similar to the 1855 derailment. This derailment took place near Berwick in 1885 and was caused by a cow wandering on the track. Leon gave me a copy of a letter published in the Berwick Register in 1935 in which an eyewitness describes the derailment. There were no fatalities but a passenger on the train lost both limbs. The letter writer, one Addy Nichols, wrote a detailed description of the incident.

Accidents such as the Cambridge fatality and the derailment east of Berwick hardly caused a blip in operation of the railway. Much more serious was the delay and financial losses caused by the Saxby Gale and other high tides in the fall of 1869. The Gale wiped out tracks between Kentville and Horton; the tracks were destroyed again when unusually high tides swept along the Minas Basin shore weeks after the Gale subsided.

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