Queenston crash of 1915
From 1893 to 1932, the Niagara Falls and Victoria Park Railway was one of the most colorful transportation systems in Canada.
Its electric cars met the Lake Ontario steamers at Queenston, ascended the Niagara escarpment loaded with tourists, then distributed them at the Brock Monument, various picnic sites, and Niagara Falls. Everywhere the view was spectacular and the company thrived. In 1923, its most successful year, the firm’s cars carried almost two million tourists. The company’s undoing was the automobile.
Wednesday, July 7, 1915, was much like many other days. Hundreds of picnickers had been enjoying the park facilities. That included two groups of Sunday school students and their attendants from Toronto. The weather had been threatening, however, and at 7.15 p.m., it began to rain.
The picnickers scurried for the electric railway cars, cramming themselves aboard with whoops of merriment. All seats were taken, standing room vanished, and a few clung to the outside of one car No official raised any objection to this packing.
THE NUMBER OF people jammed into one car (Sidney Boyt, driver, and George Carswell. conductor) is a matter of conjecture. The open, cross-seated coaches normally carried 60 to 80 people.
At a subsequent investigation, a company official was asked what comprised a limit; he replied, "All that could be got aboard." This time the figure was about 160.
The overloaded car rumbled down the track, now slick with rain, and began to descend the escarpment.
The steep grade necessitated a winding track. One safety switch had been installed near the top. Should a car run out of control before the first curve, it would run onto a short siding and be stopped with buffers. No other curves had such switches.
As the car ran down the track, a multiple failure occurred. The trolley slipped off the overhead wire, killing the motor and depriving Boyt of his reverse gear. The air brakes failed. There was no back-up emergency brake. Suddenly the car was a terrifying, rushing brute, beyond human control, veering down the track, accelerating all the time.
As the passengers screamed in terror, the car took one curve, then a second. At the third curve, its momentum was too great — it jumped the track, smashed through a trolley pole, then plunged down an embankment, splitting a tree like matchwood before coming to rest on its side. In its wake, it left debris and scattered bodies.
TEN PERSONS DIED in the crash. Rescuers came pouring around the coach, including soldiers of the 19th Regiment who had been guarding the International Bridge (the First World War was on). At the Queenston dock, the steamer Chippewa had been waiting for tourists; it now became a hospital ship, taking most of the 92 injured aboard. Some serious cases were rushed to Niagara Falls for treatment.
Two people subsequently died aboard the steamer, two more in Niagara Falls, and one person died in Toronto, making the final death toll 15.
It was the worst electric railway crash in Ontario history and the third worst in Canadian history.
Every such disaster has its share of ironies. Robert Watson, a Sunday school teacher, was killed; five children seated around him emerged uninjured, Watson, aged 30, wore an engraved watch which had been presented to him 17 years before for saving a girl from drowning.
A coroner’s inquest was convened July 28. It exonerated the crew of the fatal car but was critical of the company for running a road with too steep a grade and defective equipment.
A charge of criminal negligence was brought against Mr. E.R. Dickson, vice-president and general manager, but the case was thrown out at a preliminary hearing in September. Magistrate J.H. Campbell pointed out that the Ontario Railway Board had not ordered any changes or improvements to the line, and that the electric railway had been accident-free for 21 years. The tragedy of July 7, 1915 was, in fact, the only accident to befall the railway.