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The Last Ride of William F. Cameron

The life and career of Cranbrook's most accident prone mayor
Left: The William Cameron Residence

They found Bill Cameron the following day in one of his favourite positions, sitting in the driver’s seat of his Buick coupe, hands clutched firmly to the steering wheel. It was very cold although Bill didn’t feel it. The car, as it happened, was at the bottom of the Elk River and had been for many hours.

William Forest Cameron, born May 12, 1868, in Salt Springs, Nova Scotia, arrived in Cranbrook with his wife Alice and their three daughters in the early 1900s. His job as a conductor for the Canadian Pacific Railway kept him gainfully employed, so much so that he built a large residence on Burwell Avenue in the Baker Hill section of the city. The structure was enclosed by April, 1904, ready for the plasterers in June and occupied by August. Although it was described as a “handsome residence;” by the Herald newspaper, it was certainly not overly fancy. Still, it was sturdy and comfortable and it was here the family would reside for many years.

Bill was a dedicated, hard-working fellow, if not somewhat accident-prone. In March, 1903, he met with a serious injury when a chain on a plow train slipped and caught his left hand, severing a finger and badly mangling the others. October of the following year saw him tripping on a nail while running along the tops of the cars of a moving train. He fell head first between two cars but managed to grab the top of an open door below. He hung head-down, clinging to the door with his feet hooked over the top of the car until he finally managed to extricate himself and climb back to safety. In 1907, Bill suffered a nasty accident at Jaffray when he caught his foot while stepping off a moving train and was dragged some distance, knocking him unconscious and causing a severe back sprain. Undaunted, he was once again back at work in a short time.

Bill enjoyed both curling and travelling equally, playing in every bonspiel he could manage during the winter and, with his wife, frequently traveling to New York, Chicago, Boston and others points east in the summer months. In 1911, he expressed an interest in local politics and ran for alderman, a race he lost by twelve votes. Running again the next year, he joined a city council elected by acclamation for the regular one year term.  1916 saw him once again a member of city council and the president of the Crows Nest Curling Association which included a district from Lethbridge to Creston. Further, and undoubtedly to his joy, he also purchased a McLaughlin “Baby Six” automobile.

As president of the Cranbrook & District Auto Club in 1917, he and his fellow enthusiasts spent leisure time driving and mapping the roads in the area in order to promote tourism. His most extensive automobile trip occurred in 1922, when he, his wife and another couple traveled from Cranbrook through Oregon and California to the Mexican border and back again without mishap, a journey of over six thousand miles, a notable accomplishment for the day.

He was elected to his first term as mayor of Cranbrook in 1919, running again in 1920, but losing to fellow CPR employee Alfred Genest, his campaign and reputation tarnished somewhat by a conviction of “knocking-down” (“skimming” in present day terms) CPR fares. He appealed the case and was cleared of all charges some months later.

Bill threw his hat into the political arena in 1923 and was once again elected Mayor, the same year he purchased Lester Clapp’s Baker Street tobacco business and, with son-in-law Robert “Bert” Sang, formed Cameron & Sang, a company that would survive into the 1970s.

While driving alone near Edgewater, B.C., in April, 1924, he encountered bad weather. His Nash Six auto swerved off the highway and, with Bill huddled beneath the steering wheel, executed a series of somersaults down a 75-foot embankment, eventually pinning him beneath the auto. He dug himself out, climbed the hill, walked a mile for assistance, returned to the scene, pulled the car up to the road, replaced the battery and drove home. Although the roof and nearly every attachment on the vehicle were torn away, the car itself was remarkably unscathed. Bert Sang drove it to Spokane for repairs a few days later, returning it as good as new.

Never far from injury, Bill plunged from a ladder while putting up exterior house decorations for the 1927, July 1st celebration. He landed on a concrete sidewalk, breaking an arm and a rib. A few months later, while walking to the curling rink, he tripped on a hole in a sidewalk and fractured the elbow of the arm he had previously broken.

Bill’s last ride came late on the evening of Feb. 25, 1934. He and two fellow curlers, J.M. Baird and E. H. McPhee were returning home from a curling bonspiel in Fernie when the car caught a patch of ice and slid into the icy waters of the Elk River. Somehow Baird and McPhee escaped the flooding vehicle. McPhee made it to shore but returned to the waters to rescue Baird who was struggling in the current. Struggling to shore once again, McPhee managed to drag and carry the nearly unconscious Baird over a mile in the -6F (-21C) weather to a cabin. The two brothers living there cut them out of their frozen clothing, supplied warm blankets and notified the authorities.

The search finally revealed the submerged vehicle the next morning, with Bill in the driver’s seat with his hands on the wheel.

On March 1, 1934, his body lay in state in the council chamber of Cranbrook City Hall as flags flew at half mast throughout the city. As a former lieutenant in the 1st Regiment, Kootenay Battalion, he was buried with full military honours in the Cranbrook Old General Cemetery.


Jim Cameron is author of Cranbrook Then and Now: Vol. 1, available at various locations in the Cranbrook area, including the Daily Townsman.