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Sunday, 28 July 2013

Manitoba's Worst Train Disasters: Brandon (1916)

© Christian Cassidy, 2013
This is one in a series on Manitoba's worst train crashes.

Brandon's C.P.R. depot and yard c. 1912 (source)

On the morning of January 12, 1916 a "snow train" was working in the yards of the Brandon's CPR station. Aside from a supervisor and the train's crew, it consisted of temporary labourers who shoveled the snow drifts from around the tracks. This particular train consisted of ten cars and a caboose.

The morning was cold one. According to Environment Canada's archives the maximum temperature for the day was -36, the low was -46. That created ice fog which, when added to the dark smoke drifting around from the yard's roundhouse, dropped visibility down to mere meters.

At around 10 a.m. thirteen men from the snow train were packed into the caboose to warm up as it inched down a "Y" track to merge onto the main line, (most witnesses claimed it was moving between two and four mph).

Also at 10 a.m. a freight train loaded with livestock bound for Winnipeg was pulling out of the yards. Before it departed, the crew was told to keep an eye out for a snow train on the tracks ahead. The conductor left the yard traveling at a slow speed, perhaps six mph. At 10:05 the crew of the freight train felt a small bump, not enough force to knock them off their feet, but they knew had struck something.

January 12, 1916, Brandon Sun (source)

Despite the slow speeds involved, the outcome was devastating. The trains struck just as the snow train was merging with the main line. The force lifted two empty flatbed cars from the snow train off the track and into its caboose. It was completely crushed and the men in and around it, sixteen in total, were killed. Three others succumbed to their injuries in the following days later for a total of nineteen dead.

January 14, 1916, Winnipeg Tribune

The province was stunned. Railway accidents were part of life on the prairies, I found two other multiple-death accidents that same month, but this appears to have been the worst train accident in Manitoba to that point in time, (and remained so until the Dugald train disaster in 1947). It made news across the continent, from Calgary to New York.

Aside from the snow train's crew and a supervisor, the men working on it were temporary labourers, most were Galacians, at the time listed as Austrians but apparently modern-day Ukraine). They were desperate for work, and took the job despite the cold and potential danger. (This portrayal of survivor Mike Shadlock gives a sense of who these men were.)

The Free Press noted that "Some of them had very large families whose sufferings promise to be very acute if something isn’t done for them in the immediate future," (January 13, 1916 Winnipeg Free Press).

January 14, 1916, Winnipeg Free Press

An inquest began the next day in Brandon's city hall chambers. Because so many of the witnesses were still in hospital, only a handful of people could be called. They included yard supervisors, a dispatcher and some of the crew from the freight train.

The freight train conductor confirmed that he had been warned that there was a snow train working ahead of him. He told the inquiry that's why he proceeded at a slow speed - around 6 mph. He did not expect to come across the train so quickly, just a couple of minutes after pulling out. Due to the fog and smoke, even at their low speeds, the crash could not be avoided.

Some witnesses, including the conductor, made much of the fact that a snow train is not allowed on the main line. If they had followed the rules, they said, the crash would not have happened.

Brandon City Hall: Inquest scene (source)

The inquest resumed on January 25th when more witnesses could be called. City Hall's gallery was packed, many potential spectators had to be turned away. 

Survivors from the snow train were called. They testified that they received no warning that a freight train would be pulling out of the station that morning. When asked if he had thought of giving a warning, the foreman of the yard replied "No, not me. The crew of the snow train should look after their own safety. I expect every man to look after his own train. I could not look after all the trains," (Winnipeg Free Press).

It was also noted that no flag man was on duty in the yard. This was not required but someone was usually there to help prevent this sort of thing. Many, though, agreed that given the visability there may have been little that anyone might have seen until it was too late.

As for being on the main line, investigation by the inquiry since that first day of testimony found that "rule 93" allowed work trains to travel on or to cross the main line so long as they were within the boundaries of the yard, which the snow train was.

January 26, 1916, Winnipeg Free Press

The jury returned their verdict later that day exonerating both crews and putting the blame on the CPR. Their decision read, in part:

 “We find that the accident was caused by the negligence of the Canadian Pacific Railway company in not safeguarding trains working in the yards and to which the inclemency of the weather contributed to a considerable extent.” 
January 26, 1916, Brandon Sun

There are mentions in the Free Press and Sun of the city, local churches and the Galacian community coming together to support family members immediately after the crash. 

I cannot find any indication of there being a memorial anywhere in brandon for the workers who died.

January 14, 1916, Brandon Sun (source)

The Dead:

Compiling an accurate list of the dead has been very difficult. 

My initial list was compiled from lists and small stories that appeared in the Free Press and Sun in the days following the crash. Sadly, newspapers didn't take the same care and attention reporting on the death of "foreigners" that they did for other citizens. Names were misspelled, photos not published, and surviving family information - when mentioned - was done so in  generalities. This incident was no different. 

I assumed that the Brandon Sun's spelling (and addresses) that appeared around the time of the inquest was the better source as they may have had access to official documents and may have used the city's Henderson Directory, (which weren't always correct, either). 

When compared to the listings at the cemetery, though, spellings sometimes changed again. I am not fully confident in the cemetery's records - their lack of dates of birth and the fact that every man was born in generic "Austria" tells me that the information provided to them wasn't gleaned from official sources like immigration records. I have, nonetheless, taken their spelling as the official one. Alternative spellings from the Free Press or other Sun stories appear in brackets.

January 13, 1916, Winnipeg Tribune

Merging the newspaper and cemetery lists produces 21 victims. At the time of the closing of the inquest on January 25 there were 19 victims. It is possible that "X Somerton" from the newspaper list was a completely wrong name. A possible explanation for the other additional names is that there were additional victims. The day after the crash, when there were 17 victims, it was expected that there would be up to 20 as four or five people were in extremely serious condition and not expected to make it. They may have died at a later date but the cemetery records list the date of death as the date of the crash. 

There are also a couple of men named in the crash that do not appear on the cemetery list - perhaps they were buried at family plots in other parts of the province.  

I am presenting this list even with the incorrect numbers, preferring to have a duplicate, misspelled name, than leave a victim off the list.

Note that the "Austria" mentioned is likely present-day Ukraine / Poland.

Brandon Cemetery. Box 20 is where workers are buried (source)
Top: photo of row 20. Only 5 have gravestones. (photo by me)

From newspaper records and cemetery records:

1. Michael Balawyder (Balawiydes, Balawiyder?), 13 Assiniboine.  Born 1888, Austria. (20-B20)

2. Stephen Batycki (Steve Bilyski? Butyski?), (37)1st Street. Born 1879, Austria. Left a wife and "one or two" young children. (20 B5)

3. Wasyl Bolinski, 2109 McDonald Avenue. Born 1886, Austria. Died Jan 12, 1916, Brandon. (20-B10)

4. Joe Dryla (Dreyley?), 101-7th Street. Born 1900, Austria. (20 B04)

5. Ignace Kircharski (Kirhakiski (Kirkakiski?), 53 1/2 12th St. N. 44, born 1872 Austria, (20 B019)

6. Anthony Jarnowski (Anton Lamonski ?)(Yamonski?), 29-14th Street N. Born 1886 Austria, died Jan 12 1916 , Brandon (20-B7)

7. George McGhie, acting supervisor, 340 Rosser Avenue. Born 1878, Aberdeen Scotland. Left a wife, children George (14) and James (3). (C16-46)

8. Alex Meskowski (Mikoski?) – 19th Street N. Born 1865, Austria (20-B11)

9. Harry Moroz (Morz?) Born 1876, place unknown. (20-B12)

10. Mike Robeck 54–14th Street N. Born 1866, Austria. Died Jan 12 1916, Brandon. (20-B8)

11. Tony Rutkowski, 52 -14th Street N. Born 1866, Austria. Died Jan 12 1916, Brandon. (20-B9)

12. Shenik Lowestian (Sowerstran?) , 930 Stickney Avenue. Born 1887 Austria. (20 B13)

13. John Lacarski (Tarcarcki?) 53-15th St. N. (the last man to die, in hospital the following morning). Born 1891 Austria (20 B16)

14. John Lisawski (Tysostoy?  (Lysostey ?) Born 1887, Austria (20-B13)

15. Anthony Rzemyk (Tony Zamock?) 22. Born 1894, Austria (20 B17)

From newspaper records only:

16. *Anthony Shamick, 57-9th Street S. (Buried?)

17. *X Somerton

18.  *Joe Boloski (Boleski? Bolaski?), 61-7th Street N. An Austrian immigrant, left a wife and "four or five" children. (Brandon Cemetery - source)

From Cemetery Records only, (these do not specify that they died in the train wreck but are in the same section of the cemetery and share the same "Austria" birthplace and date of death.)

Stephen Greskow Section: (20 B18), Born 1878, Austria. Died Jan 12, 1916. 

Wasyl Sojczik Section: (20 B15), Born 1889, Austria. Died Jan 12, 1916.

Andrew Malnozok Section: (20 B21), Born 1886, Austria. Died Jan 15, 1916.

Also in this series: Brandon (1916); Carberry (1946); Dugald (1947) which will be updated soon; and Birdtail Creek (1968)

- There is an update to this post about Brandon's train disaster
- Check out my Winnipeg Free Press story from 2014 with more updated information


Robert-Falcon Ouellette said...

lets hope we never see anything like that in Winnipeg.

robert falcon ouellette

Brandon Tutor said...

Thanks for posting this article! I appreciated learning a part of Brandon’s history.

debbie jaskow-naylor said...

I was glad to see this as I had been told about it and finally saw something in print. My grandmother was Stefan Batisky`s widow. She remarried and my father is from that marriage.

Christian Cassidy said...

thanks for the update on a family member of a crash victim. I am going to keep bugging the city about doing a centennial event or memorial marker in 2016.

Cathy Stanton said...

They really got some info messed up one of my relations was a victim. They spelted his last name wrong plus the country he was from. Its Mike ROBAK from POLAND.

Anonymous said...

My greatgrandfather was one of the survivors of the crash and I never had the chance to know him but through this article I finally feel like I know him.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the history lesson... Well presented.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the history lesson... Well presented.

Donald Hillman said...

A couple of things Cathy Stanton said that they got the country he was from was wrong and that he was from Poland. My grandfather lost his leg in that accident and was the last survivor to pass away in 1958 according to Mr Brockie at the funeral parlor. He to was Polish but his birth certificate indicated he was born in the Austrian Hungarian Empire. I think the same holds true for most of them.