Hugh James Brock: The Driver of the Train

The man who brought the first train to Cranbrook became a local hero.

Top: The Brock residence on the corner of Hanson Avenue and Kains Street shortly after construction. It stood on the southern edge of the city. – Herald 1911. Bottom:  The Brock residence today. – Cameron

Top: The Brock residence on the corner of Hanson Avenue and Kains Street shortly after construction. It stood on the southern edge of the city. – Herald 1911. Bottom: The Brock residence today. – Cameron

Jim Cameron

On the morning of Tuesday, August 23, 1898, with a hint of autumn in the air and the dust — there was a lot of dust — laid low by the heavy rains of the previous Sunday, the people of Cranbrook looked out of their newly-built houses and stores, their lumber mills and hotels, their shops and stables and saw smoke from the Canadian Pacific Railway track-layer rising into the sky at the northern end of Joseph’s Prairie.

Slowly, relentlessly, the great iron horse crept closer as the workers laid length after length of glittering steel. At last, remarked the Cranbrook Herald, “When the sun finally dipped behind the timber covered hills to the southwest, the dying rays were reflected back from the steel rails that carried the first train into Cranbrook … a guarantee that the pack horse and freight wagon would soon be relics of the past. And how rapidly the grand transformation was wrought! At sunrise, an open prairie and a grade. At sunset, a main track, several side tracks, trains of freight loaded to their full capacity … a telegraph office a short distance away.”

Pictured: Hugh Brock, 1948.

It may not have been the cavalry riding over the hill but it was close. It was the future of the city of Cranbrook made real by steel and when the locomotive ground to a halt and the men of the train stepped down they became the heroes of the new town.

There were five men on that train that day: conductor A. Lockhart, engineer Hugh Brock, fireman Neil Campbell and brakemen Joe Belanger and Alfred Genest. Though they all shared the responsibility along with the track gangs and engineers, the shakers and the hammer men, all those it takes to build a railway, it was engineer Hugh James Brock who, to the people of Cranbrook, truly represented the coming of the steel. No doubt to his way of thinking it was an honour uncalled for. He was a working man simply doing his job, but for over six decades his name was synonymous with that glorious day: Hugh Brock, the man who drove the first train into Cranbrook.

Born March 26, 1872, in Rouge, Quebec, it’s a wonder that Hugh ever survived the first few years of his Cranbrook sojourn. He must have carried some of his Irish mother’s luck, one way or another. In November, 1900, the westbound freight he was driving hit a rock slide near Creston and slid off a 40-foot embankment. Most of the crew, including Hugh, managed to jump before the collision. They all sustained injuries, Hugh suffering a laceration to his scalp requiring 17 stitches, a sprained knee and countless bruises.

Three months later, while driving down a grade from Fernie, the brakes failed. As the train began careening out of control through a series of reverse curves the crew bailed out once again. Adding salt to the wounds the train stayed on the tracks, coming to a halt at the foot of the grade. This time Hugh was so badly knocked about that he required a stay in the St. Eugene Hospital but he was back on the line one month later.

In June, 1901, Hugh once more managed to escape with his life when his train was thrown from the tracks while leaving the west end of the Cranbrook rail yard. Someone — it was never discovered who, despite the $1,000 reward — maliciously turned a switch causing the train to derail. The engine landed on its side below the grade, trapping Hugh in the crushed cab. He managed to break a window with his fist in order to gain some air but there seemed to be little hope as the escaping steam slowly began to suffocate him. By a stroke of luck the remainder of the train, still moving, slowly piled up behind the overturned cab shifting the locomotive once more and allowing Hugh to scramble to safety. He was the only one injured, yet again with multiple bruises and a hospital stay.

When a telegram from his family back east arrived asking if Hugh was killed in the accident he playfully replied that he was “alive and well and worth a dozen dead men.”

When, a few months later, he returned unharmed from an extended rail vacation back east the entire town let out a collective sigh of relief.

Following a period of years driving trains in Alberta, Hugh once again returned to Cranbrook, this time in the company of his new bride Alice Beggs. Contractors Christian and Jones began construction on his new house on the corner of 8th Avenue and 3rd Street in 1910, and upon their return the newlyweds took up residence in the home Hugh would live in for the rest of his life. Alice died from anemia in 1923 and Hugh married Margaret Chadwick two years later. Together they had two daughters, Olive and Grace. After 46 years with the railway Hugh retired in 1937, listed first on the seniority list of B.C. engineers, a notable achievement. He was the last surviving member of the first train crew into Cranbrook, dying at 91 years of age in 1963. His wife Margaret passed on in 1986.

And as for history; if one is to research a man such as Hugh Brock, one might consult memoirs and read newspaper accounts, search through archives and scour the digital hemisphere for information or, believe it or not, one might simply pick up the phone and call his daughter.

Grace Brock married Norman Gill of Kimberley and, following a long and fulfilling career as a school teacher in Fernie, Michel and Sparwood, now resides in Cranbrook. She is a well-spoken, refined lady and is pleased to speak of her family, then and now, recalling memories of her father, a down-to-earth, hard-working family man, a railroad man, the man who drove the first train into Cranbrook and, like so many pioneers, stayed for the rest of his life to make it a better place.