The Canoe River Train Collision

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It was in the mountains of British Columbia, when soldiers who were going off to serve their country would meet their end in one of the worst train disasters in Canadian history.

At Canoe River, just outside Valemount, BC, on Nov. 21, 1950, two trains would meet their destiny, many lives would be lost, and Canada’s political future would take a new course.

It was on that day when Passenger Extra 3538 West, consisting of a locomotive and 17 cars, was moving westbound carrying the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery, consisting of 23 officers and 315 men. On their way for deployment in the Korean War in a movement called Operation Sawhorse, the train had just entered the Rocky Mountains and was heading to the coast. Half of the cars the locomotive was pulling were made of wood. At the time, passengers were no longer carried in wooden cars, only soldiers. This was changed after a 1947 rail disaster when the Board of Transport Commissioners ruled that wooden passenger cars could no longer be between all-steel cars. On this train though, since the wooden cars had steel underframes, they did not count as wooden cars.

At the same time, the Continental Limited was moving eastbound with a locomotive and 11 steel cars, going from Vancouver to Montreal.

As the trains moved through the mountains, Canadian National Railway dispatcher A.E. Tisdale sent a message from his office in Kamloops to John Jack Atherton, the operator at Red Pass Junction. The order that Tisdale intended to send was quote:

“Passenger Extra 3538 West meet No. 2 Engine 6004 at Cedarside on No. 4 Engine 6057 Gosnell.”

For whatever reason, the word Cedarside was not copied down by Atherton, and may not have been heard by him, but more on that later. If the Cedarside order had been heard, then the troop train would have gone to the siding at Cedarside to await the passing of the passenger train.

The westbound troop train stopped at Red Pass Junction and Atherton relayed the incorrect order to the conductor. The full order had been passed to the Continental. The crew on the Continental expected to meet the troop train 69 kilometres east of Blue River, while the troop train expected to meet the continental 40 kilometres west of Cedarside. Neither of the train crews knew that they were going to approach each other at an embankment. Both trains were moving at moderate speeds as they navigated the sharp turn coming into the embankment.

Nearby, Thomas Tindall, a forestry employee, saw the trains approaching each other. He attempted to signal the Continental crew but believed his waving was friendly and not frantic, and simply waved back.

At 10:35 a.m., the two trains collided one kilometre south of a small station called Canoe River, eight kilometres west of Cedarside. The collision would occur along the only section of Canadian National Railway in the mountains that did not have automatic block signals.

As the two trains collided, the leading cars of both trains derailed. One coach was shot into the air by the collision and came crashing down on top of the coach behind it. The wooden cars of the troop train were demolished by the steel cars but most of the deaths would be caused not by the crushing but the rupturing of steam boilers that penetrated scalding steam and water into the troop cars.

Two soldiers, William Barton and Roger Bowe, were at the newsstand on the train buying cigarettes. Both men would be shielded by the structure of the newsstand, saving their lives. Two others, Joseph Thistle and James White, where standing nearby and were killed.

As soon as the crash was reported, people from Valemount came out to help. At the crash site, the troop cars were smashed completely, and rescuers had to break into them with axes to rescue those inside. Hampering efforts was the fact that there were no medical supplies on the troop train and the medical officer was not on the train. First aid boxes were empty, and the box labelled “Medical Stores” only had condoms in it.

Thankfully, Dr. P.S. Kimmett was on board the other train and he quickly took over dealing with the injured, assisted by his wife who was a nurse. Kimmett helped 50 people without any supplies or trained personnel. Many of the men were severely injured. One man had nearly every bit of skin on his body burned, while another had a piece of glass sticking in through his chest and out his back. James Henderson, who was on the troop train would state quote:

“I talked with one soldier who lay shivering in a bunk in the hospital coach. He had no visible sign of injury, but his face was a ghastly green shade. He wanted more blankets and a cigarette, and I gave him both. An hour later, I helped move his body to the other coach.”

Telephone lines along the track were destroyed by the collision, the weather was -18 Celsius and there was 15 centimetres of snow on the ground, making for difficulty in helping people without the cold becoming an added problem.

A relief call was eventually put in to Jasper, but it took three hours to arrive. A hospital train arrived with two doctors and eight nurses. One doctor would say upon arrival, quote:

“There is hardly a case with only one type of trauma.”

A rescue train also arrived to take the injured to Edmonton from the scene. The Jasper doctors went with the rescue train and Dr. Kimmett was in charge, remaining until the army arrived to relieve him and other civilians and he could go on his way to Edmonton. Emergency beds were also prepared in Kamloops and a train left with more medical personnel and first-aid supplies to aid helping the wounded.

Major Francis Leask would say of the work of Dr. Kimmett quote:

“We couldn’t have gotten along without him.”

In the crash, 61 people were injured and 21 were killed. The weather did not help with finding the dead, and to this day, four bodies were never found. An explosion and fire on Nov. 22 when work was being done to clear the track likely consumed the remaining bodies.

Lt. Paul Cullen would state after arriving in Edmonton, quote:

“The experience was horrible. Injured soldiers were lying all over, pinned here and there. Steam seemed to fill everything. At first, we couldn’t see. The first job was to help those away who were free in the wreckage. Then everything seemed to become organized and the big job of freeing everyone still living went on smoothly.”

One man, who was on the civilian train, described the accident, stating quote:

“We all climbed out of the diner and ran toward the front of the train. The engines were both all tangled up together and there were big clouds of steam over everything at the front of the trains. The baggage, mail and express cars were all off the track.”

Corporal D.J. Johnston would say quote:

“We did what we could that’s all. It was pretty rough on a lot of the boys. They stood up well. They did a wonderful job.”

Major K.T. Whyte would say quote:

“Everybody on the train was absolutely marvelous. There was no panic.”

One soldier would state of seeing the soldiers in pain, quote:

“I was near the men who were killed and really it was worse than going into any sort of battle. In this case, nobody had a chance. Nobody knew what was coming.”

Private J.W. Campbell was standing in front of a mirror shaving when the train crash occurred. He said quote:

“My face was lathered, and I was just reaching for the razor when we hit. My head struck the mirror and my stomach hit the sink. It knocked the wind out of me. I thought we had just gone off the track. I wasn’t hurt too much.”

Lt. A. Doucet had been in the third car but went to the fourth car before the wreck happened, likely saving his life. He would say quote:

“I had gone back to get some books for the boys after breakfast and was returning with my arms loaded. While I was passing through the fourth car, we hit. I was thrown the full length of the car, bashed up a bit but not seriously hurt.”

Glenda Cornforth was 14 when her dad died in the crash. She would say quote:

“The wreck was such a mangled mess they didn’t find my dad’s body until spring.”

The family of the dead would receive a small settlement. Cornforth’s mother received $50 per month, about $1,000 today, while 50 cents a day was provided for Cornforth, amounting to $5.50 today.

Only a few days after the disaster, an inquiry began to find out what had happened. The British Columbia Provincial Police and the RCMP but the crash site was under the jurisdiction of the RCMP.

The Canadian National Railway suspended all trainmen involved in passing the order to the troop train and an inquiry began in Kamloops.

Atherton was fired by the CNR before the hearings, which would begin in Edmonton in December of 1950.

At the hearings, he testified that there was a gap in transmission, and he did not hear “At Cedarside” in the transmission. He was supposed to ask for a repeat of the order, but he did not, and he went back to his other duties. He also denied he repeated the order back to Tisdale with the two words included.

Tisdale would testify that the order was read back to him by both operators with “At Cedarside” included in both transmissions. He would also testify that there were sometimes gaps in communications because of objects falling against a communication line. Parsons would also testify that Atherton had repeated the order back correctly.

On Jan. 18, 1951, a report was issued by the Board of Transport Commissioners. It did not assign individual responsibility for the deaths, and it called for the CNR to install block signals on that section of line.

As for Atherton, his struggle was just beginning.

His father had anticipated that charges would be brought against his son over the crash. Atherton’s parents lived in Zealandia, Saskatchewan, and their Member of Parliament for the riding was a man by the name of John Diefenbaker. In December 1950, Atherton’s father contacted Diefenbaker and asked that he serve as defence counsel for his son. Diefenbaker, who at that point was 10 years into his 39-year Parliamentary career, declined saying that Parliament came first, and his wife Edna was very sick with leukemia. Another issue was that he was not a lawyer in British Columbia and would have to pass the bar there.

It would have likely ended there for Diefenbaker, but Atherton’s father was a very driven man. He knew that Edna Diefenbaker was a powerful influence on her husband, and he would sneak into her Saskatoon hospital room to speak with her. At the time, Diefenbaker was in Australia attending a Commonwealth Parliamentary meeting.

Later, Diefenbaker came to see his wife and she told him that Jack Atherton had come to see her about her son’s case. She would say quote:

“Everyone in the CNR is running away from responsibility for what appears to have been a grievous disregard for human lives.”

Diefenbaker told her that the British Columbia Bar was notoriously difficult to pass, and the fee was $1,500. Edna then told her husband she already told the Atherton’s that he would take the case. With that, Diefenbaker took the case.

Sadly, one month later on Feb. 7, Edna would die from leukemia, never seeing the case she pushed her husband towards or the huge impact it would have on his later career.

On Jan. 9, 1951, Atherton was arrested for manslaughter. Bail was set at $5,000. He was released on bail on Jan. 24 after Alex Moffat, a man from Prince George, and William Reynolds, a CNR employee, each posted $2,500 for his release.

After dealing with the death of his wife, Diefenbaker went to British Columbia to take the bar examination. Diefenbaker only had one chance to pass the bar. If he failed, he could not take the case. He paid the fee and was given an oral examination. According to Diefenbaker, the oral examination consisted of the following quote:

“Are there contracts required by statute to be in writing?”

Diefenbaker replied yes.

The examiner then asked him to name one of them, and he stated one was a land contract.

With that, he passed his test and was congratulated for being the first person to ever get a perfect score.

The Calgary Herald would report quote:

“We note with pleasure that John Diefenbaker, who is not only one of the most distinguished members of Parliament, but also a first-class criminal lawyer, has accepted to defend John Atherton, the young CNR telegraph operator charged with manslaughter as a result of the Canoe River train wreck. It is good to see the eminent men are still willing to come to the defence of the humble.”

On March 13, 1951, the preliminary hearing began, lasting until March 15. The Crown would call 20 witnesses, while Diefenbaker would argue that the rules put forward by the Canadian National Railway did not require the repeating of a message. He put forward a motion to dismiss but this was unsuccessful, and the trial would go before the Supreme Court of British Columbia.

Diefenbaker would focus his argument in the preliminary hearing on block signals. At one point, while examining J.A. Leslie, the assistant engineer of the CNR’s Kamloops division, he would say quote:

“Is it not true that where block signals are installed, safety is increased by 200 per cent?”

Leslie would agree that it is true. Diefenbaker then said quote:

“Would block signals have probably averted this accident?”

Leslie again said this as true.

He would also ask Leslie about the cars, stating quote:

“Isn’t it a fact that all the poor soldiers were in wooden cars?”

Leslie would respond quote:

“The cars have steel frames and are sheeted with steel.”

He would refer to the cars as tourist cars.

On May 9, 1951, Colonel Eric Pepler led the prosecution, while Diefenbaker defended Atherton.

On the first day of the trial, the Crown called several witnesses in the morning, while Diefenbaker sat and listened.

In Parliament, Diefenbaker was known for his fiery speeches and strong speaking style. The trial would be no different. When he had a CNR official on the stand, he would state quote:

“I suppose the reason you put these soldiers in wooden cars with steel cars on either end was so that no matter what they might subsequently find in Korea, they’d always be able to say ‘Well, we had it worse than that in Canada’.”

Pepler objected on the grounds that Diefenbaker made a statement, not a question. Diefenbaker then responded quote:

“My Lord, it was made clear by the elevation of my voice at the end of the sentence that there was a great big question mark on it.”

Atherton was only charged in the manslaughter of the troop train fireman, which Pepler reiterated by stating quote:

“I want to make it clear that in this case, we are not concerned about the death of a few privates going to Korea.”

Diefenbaker always had a friend sit in the gallery and watch the jury. After the comment made by Pepler, he would report that two men, one a veteran of the First World War and another a veteran of the Second World War, had disgusted looks on their faces.

For Diefenbaker, this was the perfect opportunity and he seized it, stating quote:

“You’re not concerned about the killing of a few privates? Oh Colonel!”

Diefenbaker would then always address Pepler as Colonel for the rest of the trial to remind the jury about his statement. He would say in 1975 quote:

“During the last three days of the trial, my hearing was not quite right. It did not matter what question the Colonel asked, whether favorable to me or to him, I would say ‘I didn’t quite hear you Colonel. Every time I said Colonel, the reaction of the jury was not such as would have been judged entirely warm towards the Crown or its case. I colonelled him in and I colonelled him out.”

Diefenbaker would argue to the jury that the silence on the line had been the lost words of “at Cedarside”, and this was caused by a bird possibly dropping a fish on a snow-covered line. Diefenbaker would add this was something he knew of from previous occurrences. Diefenbaker would put the blame on the shoulders of Tisdale, stating he had not been paying attention to the orders when they were sent back to him.

At the end of the trial, with their closing remarks, the two lawyers spoke for five hours. Diefenbaker spoke for three of the five hours.

The jury would deliberate for 40 minutes and announced the complete acquittal of Atherton. At the trial, his mother broke down in tears at the acquittal of her son.

Diefenbaker represented Atherton at his own expense without ever charging him, but about 50 per cent of his costs were reimbursed through donations.

After the trial, the CNR installed block signals at the site of the accident and three years later, modernized its entire fleet with 302 new cars. Eventually, the line was rerouted to remove the sharp curve.

Atherton would go on to work for the Saskatchewan Transportation Company and moved to Saskatoon. Pepler retired in 1954 and would pass away on Nov. 16, 1957.

As for Diefenbaker, the case gave him nationwide recognition and he would be widely congratulated for his victory.

When Diefenbaker returned to Parliament Hill, a string of visitors came to his office to congratulate him on the outcome.

With the greater name recognition, he would eventually become the Leader of the Progressive Conservatives in 1957, and then Prime Minister of Canada later that year, serving until 1963.

During the 1957 election campaign, Atherton travelled to Regina to greet Diefenbaker at a campaign stop. He did this at the cost of missing his own wedding rehearsal.

Atherton would say after they took a photo together, quote:

“That’s something to have my picture taken with the next prime minister.”

In British Columbia, Diefenbaker was greeted by huge crowds who remembered his victory six years previous.

In 1975, Diefenbaker would say quote:

“Of all my jury trials, probably the one best remembered was the Canoe River case.”

Diefenbaker would pass away in 1979 after 39 years serving in Parliament.

Today, a monument to the soldiers who died sits at CFB Shilo, where a memorial parade is conducted every year.  A memorial cairn is also erected near the crash site and the CNR has also put a monument near the site of the disaster.

In 2003 during Remembrance Week, five family members of the soldiers who died in the crash were given Memorial Crosses, while other family members would get their memorial crosses at a later date.

Unfortunately, since the soldiers did not reach Korea, they were not given posthumous Canadian Volunteer Service Medals.

Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Maclean’s, CBC, The Rocky Mountain Goat, Wikipedia, Vancouver Province, Ottawa Citizen, Edmonton Journal, Calgary Albertan, Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, Victoria Daily Times, Sault Star,

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