Historicist: Head-On Calamity
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Historicist: Head-On Calamity

Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

Derek Boles noted in Toronto’s Railway Heritage (Arcadia Publishing, 2009) that the accident occurred a mile west of the Sunnyside level crossing, seen here in 1907. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 1464.

Just before daybreak on January 2, 1884, a young Parkdale resident named Goodwood was walking home from the Humber River through a snowstorm when he spotted the headlight of a Grand Trunk Railway freight train, barrelling eastbound down the grade at thirty miles an hour. From the other direction, Goodwood saw a suburban commuter train charting its leisurely path westward, approaching a point where a cluster of trees turned the track’s gentle curve around the southern edge of High Park into a blind corner.
Realizing there would be a fearful collision on the single track, Goodwood ran to safety a short distance from the track. As the suburban train passed him, The Globe recounted, “He saw many of the men in the foremost car laughing and talking pleasantly together.” They were on their way to work at the Toronto Bolt and Iron Works, a foundry near the east bank of the Humber. With the locomotives but twenty yards apart from a head-on collision—each sounding its whistle in futile warning—Goodwood closed his eyes in fright.
In a thunderous crash, the freight’s heavier locomotive—carrying the momentum of a tender fully laden with coal and water—plowed through the cab of the suburban’s locomotive, climbing onto the latter’s trucks and pushing the suburban’s boiler into the first passenger car. Escaping steam from the bursting boiler melted the drifts of snow around the crash and painfully scalded those passengers trapped inside.
“It was awful,” James Hopewell, a farmer on his way to the city, told The Mail. “As soon as the shock brought both trains to a standstill every sound was hushed but that of the escaping steam which shrouded everything in a cloud of white.”
The Mail described the carnage: “Bolts and rods, not of iron alone but wrought steel were bent and twisted like hair pins. The roof was splintered into kindling wood, and there was not a piece of it six inches square but was split or crushed.” A moment later the wreckage was ablaze, fuelled by toppled fireplaces in the passenger car spilling onto the kindling.

Coverage in The Globe, January 3, 1884.

Around 4:30 a.m. that morning, engineer Richard Jeffry pulled G.T.R. Engine Number 270 into Hamilton. Since leaving Port Edward at 7:13 p.m. the previous evening, the special freight train had passed through London, Woodstock, and, after a brief pause in Hamilton, was westbound for Queen’s Wharf, the Grand Trunk’s lakeside freight depot southwest of Fort York.
Jeffry was, as The Globe later wrote, “A trained driver and…well spoken of.” Nevertheless, he’d never previously travelled between Hamilton and Toronto. So, the Stratford native asked for a pilot, an experienced crewman, to act as a guide, pointing out variations of grade and the physical character of the tracks, to better allow him to make appropriate adjustments to the steam pressure settings.
The Hamilton station master did not provide one. Instead, Jeffry’s conductor, George Barber, volunteered to act. Although Barber had travelled between Toronto and Hamilton frequently in his years of service with the Grand Trunk, performing such double-duty was highly unusual, and the station master should not have allowed it. But by this time, Barber and Jeffry had been on continuous duty for nearly twelve hours, and were likely eager to reach journey’s end.
At 5:20 a.m., Special Number 146—running light with only the engine, tender, one empty baggage car, and caboose—set off for Toronto through a howling snowstorm. A telegraph man signalled Toronto that Jeffry’s freight train was on its way. The message was received but no action was taken.

From C.W. Jefferys, The Picture Gallery of Canadian History (Volume 3) (Ryerson Press, 1950)

At Hamilton, they’d been issued revised orders: “Run to Queen’s Wharf, avoiding regulars.” In this era, the vast majority of rail routes ran along single tracks. It was imperative, Hugh A. Halliday notes in Wreck: Canada’s Worst Railway Accidents (Robin Brass, 1997), that only a single train at a time occupied a section (or block) of track between sidings. According to the G.T.R. regulations, specials had to avoid regular trains—which always had the right of way by virtue of travelling according to a published schedule. The conductor was supposed to give the go-ahead to travel on only after the train passed.
Although station personnel or semaphores might help them in their duty, ultimately, the conductor was responsible for the safe passage of his train. Knowing the Number 25, a daily train that delivered newspapers to southwestern Ontario, was due to cross their path at Oakville, Barber ensured the special freight train was safely on a siding at Bronte until it passed.
Barber, a man of twenty-nine who lived with his wife at 71 Esther Street in Toronto, was well experienced on this track and familiar with the commuter trains that used it. He was considered sober, steady, and one of the best conductors on the Grand Trunk by those who knew him. In giving Jeffry the go-ahead to proceed from Bronte, Barber was certain the next regular train didn’t leave Toronto until 7:35 a.m., but his study of the timetable that morning was not careful enough. Among its figures and footnotes, he’d overlooked an earlier commuter train.
Around the same time, foundry workers on their way to the Toronto Bolt and Iron Works gathered at the second Union Station. Established in 1879, the Bolt Works had moved to the west edge of town (at the foot of present-day Windermere Street) in June, 1883. Many of their employees lived in downtown neighbourhoods, and at least sixty commuted by the Number 13 train each work day, which left Union daily at 6:40 a.m. with stops near the Bolt Works and Mimico.

The Second Union Station, as seen in 1888, from Wikimedia Commons.

On the morning of January 2, there were far fewer men in work clothes than usual on the platform. Perhaps the men commented on the absence of Mr. McIntyre and his son, who had never missed the morning train, but would have to walk to work today—a circumstance the McIntyres later considered a “providential escape.” Maybe the men bemoaned the return to work after the joviality of the holiday season, or complained that their train was late. The locomotive—a smaller engine-tender combination known as a “dummy”—was two minutes late coming from the roundhouse.
The men piled aboard the train’s two coaches, all but five of them selecting to sit in the foremost car, which was set aside for the exclusive use of the foundry workers. At 6:49 a.m., now nine minutes late, the dummy set off westward. John Kennedy was the engineer and James Gasken was his fireman. As the train passed the Exhibition Grounds at its moderate speed, conductor James Carter finished collecting tickets. There were forty-three men and boys aboard.
The freight train passed through Mimico unobstructed. At that early hour, the station—site of the last siding before the railyards below Bathurst—was still unmanned. Its semaphore remained unlit, offering no reminder to eastbound traffic of the commuter’s approach.
In the midst of the morning’s snowstorm, John Donovan stood at the Bolt Works. A bridge carpenter for the G.T.R., he was waiting for the westbound commuter to take him to Mimico. As the freight rattled past him on the single track, he heard the Number 13’s whistle at the High Park crossing. “As soon as I heard her whistle, I knew there was going to be an accident,” Donovan remembered. He took off down the tracks at a sprint.

Coverage in The Globe, January 7, 1884.

In the cab of the commuter at 6:57 a.m., Kennedy strained to see through the blowing snow at the bend in the tracks south of High Park. Spotting the freight’s oncoming headlamp only three hundred yards in the distance, Kennedy called for brakes and Gasken leapt to the switch. A moment later, both men jumped from the locomotive. To the passengers, Carter screamed, “Jump, boys, for your lives,” as he jumped clear himself. But it was too late for anyone in the first passenger car. About half were killed instantly.
One of the passengers in the rear car remembered, “The first thing that alarmed me was the sudden shriek of the two engines. Then there was a great shock, and I was hurled from my seat over against the opposite side of the car.” The Bolt Works’ foreman, also in the rear car, recalled the moments after the crash: “The car stopped and my companions, who were all uninjured, and I got out. We saw such a sight then as I never wish to see again.”
Along with Donovan, and others arriving on scene from Parkdale, they set about the grisly task of prying the injured and dying from the mangled wreckage. An impromptu bucket brigade tried to quash the flames.
By the time the press arrived, bodies on the scene had been haphazardly covered with blankets, and local doctors had arrived to treat the wounded. Nevertheless, reporters found no shortage of witnesses willing to share their view of the carnage. In an era of sensationalist journalism, sympathy for the misfortunes of others mingled with a morbid fascination with death and destruction. Newspapers breathlessly recounted every ghastly detail. One of the first residents of nearby Parkdale to arrive on the scene, Mr. Tolton, expressed his horror to The Globe: “Bloody fragments of flesh and detached limbs were lying about, and made a horrid sight.”
The air was filled with the hiss of steam and the “shrieks and groans” of the injured, The Globe‘s reported added. In the The Mail‘s description, however, the victims were more stoic. One boy lifted out of the wreckage turned to his rescuer and said: “I feel I’m going, doctor; tell poor mother not to cry, I’m not suffering.”
The commuter’s crew were reasonably unfazed. The freight’s crew was not as fortunate. Charles Thomas, the fireman, was killed instantly. Jeffry disappeared from the scene. Bleeding profusely from his head, he wandered towards town in an apparent state of shock. Overcome by a sense of guilt, Barber kept confessing to those on the scene that he’d plain forgotten about the Number 13. As soon as the scene had settled, County Constable Wise took the freight’s conductor, Barber, into custody, pending a coroner’s inquest.

The G.T.R. right of way past the Canada Bolt & Nut Company in Swansea on February 10, 1911. By this time, rail capacity had been expanded beyond the single track there in 1884. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231, Item 1018.

Once word of the accident (eventually) reached Union, a train was sent to pick up survivors. By 10 a.m., all the injured had been carried away, yet there were hundreds of people on the accident scene for the rest of the day, eager to survey the damage. With minimal damage done to the track, once the wreckage was cleared, regular rail traffic resumed at 11:30 a.m.
The scant facts of the catastrophe—embellished by rampant rumours—spread through the city. Had the freight train ignored its orders? If the commuter hadn’t been running late, would it have already passed the Bolt Works and unloaded the vast majority of its passengers? And if Mimico had been manned, could the calamity have been averted? Had a grief-stricken Barber hanged himself in jail? Newspaper offices were swarmed by curious residents seeking the latest news updates.
Huge crowds gathered to watch, with blanched faces, as the injured were unloaded at Union Station. “Strong men wept, brushing their tears away with their mittened hands,” stated The Globe‘s colourful description. Mayor Arthur Radcliffe Boswell was among the first crowding into Toronto General Hospital, anxiously inquiring about the wounded.
That afternoon, between five and six thousand people visited the morgue. Many were friends and family seeking to identify the bodies of loved ones who were laid side by side in rows at opposite ends of the room. Others were merely curiosity seekers. “Oh, it’s awful,” one exclaimed to The Globe about the charred, disfigured remains. “Don’t go near it—you can’t recognize one of them.” In the evening, the Bolt Works held a town hall meeting for its remaining employees, and decided not to reopen the foundry until the men had been interred.

Coverage in The Globe, January 26, 1884.

Fifteen men had been killed instantly. Twenty-nine were killed in all. At least nine others were severely injured. It was, according to Derek Boles in Toronto’s Railway Heritage (Arcadia Publishing, 2009), the worst train wreck in Toronto’s history.
As Halliday put it, the day’s calamity had “an element of tragic concentration; all but one of the dead came from a single factory, and most of the families involved knew one another.” Public response was strong.
The funeral took place on Saturday, January 5, at City Hall, with the crowd spilling out into Market Square and the adjoining streets. By 3 p.m., a funeral procession made its way along King and up Yonge Street, following a cartage of sleighs. Downtown traffic stopped, and the sidewalks were packed with mourners. Along the procession route, businesses were closed, many draping their shop windows in black as a sign of public mourning. At Wellesley, the procession split; some turned towards St. James’ Cemetery while the remainder continued north.
The community also responded with charity, donating food and funds for the welfare of the widows and families affected. Even Barber’s wife was granted fifty dollars by the Parkdale relief committee for her difficulties while her husband was in jail.
In the wake of the accident, blame was accorded quickly. By 2 p.m. on the day of the accident, a coroner’s inquest was convened at the newly opened Park Hotel in Parkdale. After an adjournment, it met again at the Parkdale town hall nearly a week later.
After hearing hours of testimony, the verdict was announced on January 15. Barber and Jeffry were there, looking heartbroken. Jeffry’s head was wrapped in a bandage and he could only walk with the support of two canes.
The jury attributed the accident to Barber and Jeffry’s misreading of the timetable. However, their culpability was mitigated by Jeffry’s refused request for a pilot, and the burdensome length of their work shift. The jury was also critical of the railway, calling for the G.T.R. to lay two tracks along such a busy stretch of road. Barber was remanded to await criminal proceedings on charges of manslaughter. That trial, which took place on January 25, was a mere formality. Having come through the shock of tragedy and a tremendous outpouring of grief, the public did not seem interested in disciplining the conductor for his honest error—even one as grave as this. Even the judge, instructing the jury as they were sequestered, cautioned: “There is a wide difference between forgetfulness and criminal negligence.” The not-guilty verdict was a surprise to no one.
Other sources consulted: Mike Filey, I Remember Sunnyside (Brownstone Press, 1982); The Globe, January 3, 7, 12 & 26, 1884; The Mail, January 3 & 16, 1884; and The Telegram, January 2, 25 & 26, 1884.