The Great St. George Trainwreck
A chronicle of the historic and deadly disaster in the County of Brant.
Tim Ford, March 03, 2023 // Brantford, OntarioThe trestle bridge after the incident at the Grand River, between Paris and St. George. Stock photo.
During the supper hours of February 27, 1889 villagers in the small community of St. George in the county of Brant, were scurrying throughout their homes, setting dinner tables, and putting the final touches on their evening’s meal. Freezing rain jittered on the windows outside as wood stoves were being constantly stoked and well fed to keep the indoors cozy and warm. A familiar rumble of the train bulleting east into town could be felt throughout the houses and its whistle was faintly heard underneath the clinking of dishes and evening conversation.
6:00pm, right on time, as usual. The iron snake weaving through the Brant countryside was the mighty St. Louis Express, owned by The Grand Trunk Railroad, which was making its way to Toronto from London. Renowned for its speed, it could reach an impressive 80/kmh and beyond during open stretches.
The six-car train was carrying dozens of passengers as it approached the trestle bridge at the Grand River, between Paris and St. George. The railroad was as straight as an arrow heading into the village, so the St. Louis Express was riding at peak speed as the engine began to pull the train onto the bridge. Halfway over the river, a loud clank was heard underneath conductor Dan Revill’s boots and the entire train began to jolt and convulse.
G.T.R. accident at St. George. Stock photo.
Sparks and iron shrapnel flew everywhere making it impossible for Revill to see what was happening. When he finally made it to the other side of the bridge, he screeched the breaks and jumped down to see what had happened. He shakingly began to walk down to each train car, first reaching the baggage car, then smoking car, both in relatively good form. He then reached the end of the smoking car and realized half of his train was missing.
He ran to the edge of the bridge and looked down to see a horror he could have never imagined. The passenger car that was trailing behind the smoking car was 60 feet below him, steaming in the Grand River on its eastern bank. The pullman car that was attached to it was dangling through the middle of the bridge, holding on for dear life. He then realized; the dining car that was trailing at the end of the train had fallen headfirst through the giant gap on the destroyed bridge and partly into the west side of the river.
The twisting of iron and screams of agony were heard throughout St. George. Villagers bundled up and began to trudge through the late winter snow in the direction where the haunting sounds were coming from. Even those in Brantford and Paris could hear and see the turmoil, so some took their horse and sleighs and followed the commotion.
Eventually, those who arrived first could only look on in shock, not knowing who or what to prioritize. The dining car’s back end was still leaning up in the air on one of the great pillars. This caused all the dining and food amenities to avalanche to the front, trapping the early diners who were eating in the car. Most of the people on board were in the passenger car that also laid in the riverbed below. The speed and force “skipped it like a stone” as an eyewitness told the Expositor at the time. Villagers tried their best to free people, but their axes and saws could do little to penetrate through the trains iron skin.
The injured and the survivors were transported a few kilometres (without modern transportation) to Beemer’s Hotel in St. George, while crews and volunteers did what they could to help at the wreckage. Hundreds of people from all over Brant County gathered to volunteer. They set blazing bonfires on the frozen riverbank with the debris so they could have some sort of vision in the dark of night.
Current state of the three sisters column in the Grand River. Stock photo.
When dawn broke in the morning, the full view of what had happened came to light. Over 30 people were severely injured and 11 laid dead in the Mechanics Hall, which was quickly fashioned into a makeshift morgue. Ultimately a steel tire had broken on the engine, and in turn, shredded the rail line on the bridge. To the railway company’s dismay, two train cars were stuck in the icy current of the Grand and a major thoroughfare was now at a complete standstill, having a downed bridge. They wasted no time on their end and quickly cleared the route.
They erected a new bridge shortly after, and regular scheduled rail lines commenced. Not two months later, just 30 kilometres down the line in Hamilton, another train jumped the tracks and burst into flames, killing 18 people. Needless to say, The Grand Trunk Railroad no longer had the publics trust and stricter regulations were forced on them because of these events. Speed limits and more frequent inspections were sanctioned. Eventually, the Grand Trunk absolved the line that ran through St. George and disassembled the newer train bridge hovering over the Grand River. By that time, the familiar rumble and tooting whistle that buzzed through St. George every night no longer blended in with the comforting noise of the everyday village life. Thereafter it was heard in a more ominous and cautious tone.
The story of that harrowing night is still told throughout Brant today, although only a few ghostly remnants can be found at the site of the great St. George trainwreck. Most eerie are the three immense bridge pillars that were left behind by the railway co. after the lines disassembling. Nicknamed “The Three Sisters”, they tower like giant gravestones wading in the middle of the river at the very spot of the accident. It’s an inadvertent but fitting monument to Brant’s deadliest disaster.
I intentionally wrote this story on the exact day, during the exact hour, and coincidentally in the exact weather conditions of that catastrophic night. It was hard not to hear the trains in the background with that same somber tone, I imagine the villagers of St. George must have heard in the wake of such a tragedy.
Books- County of Brant: A Celebration
Brant County: A Story of our People V.1
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tim Ford is freelance hobbyist who lives in his twelfth home in Brantford, Ontario…so…yeah, he knows a thing or two about aluminum siding.