Desjardins Canal Disaster

On March 12, 1857, the 6:15 Great Western Railway train from Toronto crashed through the railway bridge spanning the Desjardins Canal. The accident left fifty-nine people dead and made international headlines. The following article appeared in the April 4, 1857 issue of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper.




Scenes at the Place of the Disaster!

The Bodies Found!

Recognizing the Dead!

Appearances of the Remains of the Bridge and Cars.

The Bridge and its Construction.

The Last Melancholy Scene at the Bridge.

&c., &c., &c.,

A sketch depicting railway conductors raising the crashed train cars at the scene of the Desjardins Canal disaster in 1857.
The conductors of the railway raising the ruins of the cars. From a sketch by Mr. Lum. (Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, 4 April 1857: 273.)

The railway train from Toronto (Canada West) was due at Hamilton at a quarter past six o'clock P.M., Thursday, March the 12th. It came on from Toronto as usual, and was proceeding at a moderate speed to cross the trestle or swinging bridge of the Des Jardines canal. The chasm, sixty feet deep, over which this bridge was erected, was made by cutting an outlet for the canal through Burlington heights. At the time of the accident the water was covered with ice about two feet thick. The moment the train reached the bridge the immense weight crushed through the timbers, and the whole structure gave way, and, with one frightful crash, the engine, tender, baggage car and two first-class passenger cars broke through the severed frame-work, and leaped headlong into the yawning abyss below. The engine and tender crushed at once through the ice. The baggage car, striking the corner of the tender in the act of falling, was thrown to one side and fell some ten yards from the engine. The first passenger car rushed after, and turning as it descended, fell on its roof, breaking partly through the ice, and being crushed to atoms, while the last car fell endways on the ice, and, strange to say, remained in that position.

The loss of life was of course frightful. There were ninety passengers on the train, and the list of those who have escaped only numbers about twenty. As far as we can yet learn, every one in the first car was killed; those who were not crushed being drowned by the water which nearly filled the car. About thirty were in the last car, of whom ten were taken out dead, and most of the others were fearfully mutilated. The excitement in the city of Hamilton directly the news spread was intense. Hundreds swarmed toward the Great Western Depot and streamed along the line to the fatal spot. There the scene presented was such as to baffle description. Large locomotive lamps were speedily brought. Fires were kindled and a lurid glare was thrown over the shattered remains. Special trains were dispatched to the bridge to bring home the wounded. It was no easy task to descend the steep slope to the canal. Ropes were lowered and ladders attached to them, on which the dead and wounded from the car which stood endways were first drawn up. Then the bottom of the car, which had partly sunk through the ice was hewn away with axes, and the unfortunate passengers, some sadly mutilated and even cut in pieces, and all saturated with water, were taken out. Many worked with energy and vigour; but who was that noble fellow that every one must have seen, stripped to his shirt-sleeves, standing up to his middle in the freezing water, who, himself a host, did more than all the rest? We watched him long from the height above as he hewed away the fragments and extricated the bodies. If ever man deserved a reward, it is he.

As soon as the dead were drawn up the slope they were either put in the cars for conveyance to Hamilton, or were laid in a small house near the bridge. It is said that one family were in the cars consisting of a father, mother and four children. Only one of the children escaped. One of these little ones, a girl, about four years of age, was brought into the house the house alluded to when we were there. The poor little creature was smiling prettily as if she had been sleeping and dreaming of sweet things when the accident occurred, and had been launched into the long sleep of death before the dream had vanished from her mind. At the railway depot, when the sufferers were brought in, crowds assembled anxious to hear who was dead, and to know if any of their friends were there. The corpses were taken into one of the large baggage-rooms, where Coroners Bull and Roseburgh proceeded to have them examines, and, when possible, identified. In an out building, adjoining the Station House, at Hamilton, were sixty corpses laid out on the floor, including men, women and children. As soon as the intelligence of the catastrophe reached the city, Major Booker and Captain Macdonald's Companies of Volunteers marched to the scene, and every credit is due to them for their conduct. The pressure of the crowd had all but forced in the strong doors of the depot when the Artillery Company arrived. They formed a cordon around the room, which was respected. The rifles marched on to the bridge.

Who escaped, and how

Desjardins Canal disaster, 1857
The conductor and two passengers jumping from the last car as it was going over the precipice. (Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, 4 April 1857: 277.)

Every person in the first passenger car, except Owen Doyle, James Barton, of Stratford, and two children between eight and nine years of age, perished. The escape of these seems perfectly miraculous. One of the children was thrown out of a window on to the ice, it knows not how. The other was dragged out of a window, having been up to its neck in water for some fifteen minutes in almost a senseless state. They were a little boy and a little girl, brother and sister. They can recollect nothing after the fearful crash, and being thrown upon their heads. Their mother, father and uncle perished, and Owen Doyle, who saved himself, is their uncle. He saved himself by forcing his way out of a window as the water was rushing in. He remembers swimming on to the ice; and then lost consciousness.

James Barton cannot tell how he got out of the window. He recollects but a wild scream - being dashed against the ceiling of the car. Half senseless and half drowned, he made a last spring for a window. He was picked off of a cake of ice a few minutes afterwards, senseless. The two children, marvellous to say, are but slightly injured; and Doyle and Barton are but comparatively little hurt. Doyle had his brother, and sister-in-law, two cousins, and a cousin's wife, and two nieces, all killed or drowned. And what with his own injuries, the fearful excitement of the scene he had passed through, and the loss of so many near and dear to him, the poor fellow wandered about almost bereft of his memory and his senses. Barton's father was also lost; they were sitting together when the car was turned upside down, and they were dashed against the top of it.

The escape of Richardson, Mr. Urquhart of the express, the mail conductor, and the baggage master, was equally marvellous. When the locomotive and tender went into the abyss literally, the baggage car swung round apparently as it was going over, and broke loose from the tender. The consequence was, it struck on the ice to the left of where the locomotive disappeared; and slid, so strong was the ice, a short distance. It never overturned; and its three inmates, though thrown among trunks and all sorts of things, strange and happy to say, escaped with but barely trifling bruises. The conductor, hearing the smash of the bridge, and standing at the open door of the car, leaped out just at the brink of the abyss. He escaped unhurt.

In the second car, the persons saved were the Conductor, Mr. Barrett, the Deputy Superintendent, Mr. Muir, and Mr. Jessop, an auditor. They were on the platform of the last car, and jumped off when they heard the concussion. Of those hurt in this car, were Dr. Macklem and Mr. T.C. Street, of the Falls. The former is very much injured in the head, and had a contusion in the side but it is hoped not seriously. Mr. Street's collar-bone was broken, his arm very badly hurt, and he was otherwise much bruised. Mr. _____ Curtis, of Ingersoll, was dreadfully injured in the spine, and was expected to die every moment. Mr. Barton, junior, of Woodstock, had his back broken, and is otherwise fearfully hurt.

Got out of the window

Desjardins Canal disaster, 1857
The German rescuing his friend from the car window. (Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, 4 April 1857: 277.)

Henry August, passenger from Toronto, escaped from the first car. The escape of this person was most wonderful. He is a German; and he and the last named passenger were sitting together on the rear of the first passenger car. The moment they heard the first concussion, they got up and rushed together to the door, the latter only reached the platform. He jumped off just three feet from the chasm. The other car rushed by him and was gone. He stood for a moment paralyzed. He then ran down the hill, and was the means of saving from drowning his companion who was not in time to reach the platform. He dragged him out of a window, and comparatively unhurt.

A woman, who lives near the scene of the disaster, and who was the first to witness it, gives some interesting particulars about the two children - the Doyles - who so miraculously escaped. She rushed down the hill to the cars; indeed the poor woman literally rolled down, for it was so steep and slippery she could not keep her feet; and the first object that met her attention was the poor little girl, about eight years of age, on a cake of ice. The little thing said, "Oh, don't mind me, save my brother," and the poor little fellow was at the moment with his chin barely above the water, at the top of one of the windows, imploring some one to drag him out. The woman, though the ice was broken for some distance round the car, managed to reach him; and after rescuing him, rushed up the hill with one child in her arms, and got a passenger, who was himself badly wounded, to carry the girl on his back. She put them to bed; and strange to say, they got up with scarcely a mark. Owen Doyle, the uncle of the little girl, saved her by clasping her to his breast when he felt the car overturning, and throwing her out of the window after the crash. The little boy felt some one take him in his arms and fall under him, but he knew not whom. It is difficult to conceive a more melancholy spectacle, than these two children looking on the mangled remains of their mother, father, and nearly all who were dear to them.

Recognizing the dead

Desjardins Canal disaster, 1857
Relations and friends searching among the dead bodies laid out in the large room adjoining the station house. (Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, 4 April 1857: 277.)

Among the most harrowing scenes attending this fearful catastrophe, are the witnessing of the unhappy relatives recognizing the mangled remains of husbands, fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters. Yesterday morning the wife of Mr. Morley arrived from St. Catharine's, to pick out of the many dead his body. The scene was heartrending as she passed from one dead body to another, all marking death with greater horrors by being more or less mangled. At last one, even more distorted and mangled than the rest, was come to; and a wild cream but too well told her tale of woe. And in a large storehouse, strewed with dead bodies, and with others going the rounds to make similar heart-rending discoveries, was she left to kneel down and bewail her bereavement. Whilst on one side of the large building a row of bodies were placed, as yet unrecognized, and questions were asked of every new comer, if he or she knew anything of them, a sob or a moan would be hears in another part, indicating that some one had come from a distance and found all her sad expectations realized.

Nor was the circumstance less harrowing, of passing the stranger by, who, far from his home, and far from those who were dreaming of his return, there lay, a mangled, unrecognized, unwept victim of a railroad disaster. Here was evidently a poor Irish labourer; his pipe was still in his hand; and a smile played over his kindly countenance. One passed, yet another, and still another, and no one knew him. God only knew the grief that some would feel who did know him. Here again linger a larger group. They are looking at the figure of a woman, once beautiful, and though her hair lies tangled and wet, and her face is distorted from the effects of drowning, she still chains that idle crowd with a melancholy interest. She has a marriage ring on her finger. Two lockets are on her breast; and a brooch is suspended by a yellow ribbon round her neck. For whom did she wear them? Who were dear to her? To whom was she dear? No one knew her. God help her! she alone then required to be but recognized by him! And so passed the scene. Here a moan and a tear marked the recognition of the mangled remains of a friend or a relation. There strangers, with heavy hearts, gazed on those who were unwept; and though of themselves, if ever such a lot should be theirs. There may be scenes of sorrow and of horror, but who can conceive aught so utterly heart-rending, as when people go away in peace and happiness, to return this evening, or to-morrow, and are first heard of as mangled by drowned by such disaster.

The examination of the papers and letters of the deceased

Desjardins Canal disaster, 1857
The people living in the vicinity of the broken bridge, hunting around the ruins for the dead and wounded. (Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, 4 April 1857: 272)

This was little less melancholy than the recognizing their dead bodies. In the pocket of one would be found letters from his wife and children, wishing him home, and sorrowing for his absence. Another died with daguerreotypes on his breast of those he loved most on earth. A mother's letter was found in this one's pocket, asking relief, and saying she was ill. The money for relief was found side by side with the letter. Another's name was learned by the letters of those who loved him. And yet another was hurrying home to console the sick or the dying. Such were some of the incidents.

The remains of the bridge and the cars

A vast concourse of people gathered round the scene of the disaster yesterday. All day men were engaged breaking into pieces the first passenger car, which had been nearly submerged. It was found impossible to raise it bodily. The locomotive and tender are still under water. The second passenger car was broken up, and carried away the first evening of the disaster. The bridge has been allowed to remain precisely as it was broken; and will, we apprehend, be allowed to continue so until after the inquest, and after thorough inspection by competent engineers. It was a matter of utter astonishment to every one, how any person could have escaped, after such a fearful fall.

The walls on either sides are of very solid masonry; the adjacent banks are perhaps a hundred feet higher than the railroad. The suspension bridge is thrown over immediately on the right, and is still higher. Then, about sixty feet below the railroad is a narrow deep channel, which looks like a sort of chasm between two high hills. Into this abyss was hurled the ill-fated train. It was just wide enough to let the cars down without touching anything to break their fall. They literally leaped sixty feet into ice and water, one passenger car following the locomotive and completely overturning, and becoming almost submerged; and the other lighting endways upon this. Great as has been the loss of life, considering the number of passengers; yet, looking at the place, it is absolutely wonderful how any one escaped.

How the accident was first discovered

Desjardins Canal disaster, 1857
The Toronto Railway train breaking through the tressle bridge over the Des Jardines Canal, falling sixty feet into the gulf below. From a sketch by Col. Frank Foster, of Philadelphia. (Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, 4 April 1857: 265.)

There is but one small house, belonging to the poor woman who behaved so nobly by the Doyle children near the fallen bridge; and she was looking out of the window as the train approached. She says the catastrophe made little noise. The train seemed to sway to one side, and then all disappeared. It is probably the swaying was the first passenger car overturning. She says she saw a man leap from the locomotive immediately before it disappeared. This was likely the engineer, as he was found with his neck broken on the ice. At the same time one of the workmen at the station house - it is about a mile distant from the broken bridge - who was watching the train coming in saw the steam suddenly stop, and a sort of dust arise. In a second there was no train to be seen. The alarm was at once given; and we believe that all persons connected with the railroad have exerted themselves most assiduously since, to render all the assistance they could. The crash was not heard at the depot.

("The Calamitous Railroad Accident at Burlington Bridge! Over the Des Jardines Canal, Canada." Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, 4 April 1857: 277-278.)

Collection of Desjardins Canal Disaster Illustrations

Search form