Desjardins Canal Disaster

Desjardins Canal disaster, 1857
Desjardins Canal disaster, 1857

Scenes at the place of the disaster

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.

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