The train pulled out of Cranbrook at approximately 10:30 a.m., on the morning of November 20, 1925.
A CPR freight heading west to Spokane, it was carrying the usual compliment of crewmen: engineer Henry “Harry” Gammon, fireman Robert “Bob” Eley, head-brakeman Hubert “Bert” Huxtable, rear-end brakeman Edward “Ted” Gummer and conductor William Long, all from Cranbrook, all in their thirties, and all with years of railway experience.
The weather was just starting to change following a warm, wet spell which melted most of the previous snow. “Ice-making” weather at last, although the local rinks were not yet quite frozen.
On this particular run, the train was 15–20 minutes late leaving Cranbrook, not an unusual occurrence but one that would necessitate the freight train pausing at the town of Moyie to let a trailing passenger train from Cranbrook pass by.
The freight was hauled by coal-fired, steam locomotive #3885, an engine constructed in 1910, by the Montreal Locomotive Works, and later rebuilt to a newer class N3 2-8-0; a no-nonsense, hard-driving machine.
The train crew, following a brief stop to take on water near Jerome tunnel (across Moyie lake from Green Bay Resort), were in their places onboard for the expected run around the lake: Bob Eley and Bert Huxtable riding in the cab with engineer Gammon, and conductor Long and Ted Gummer in the caboose.
As later recalled by the engineer, the train travelled at a speed of about 20 miles an hour, with numerous rock bluffs rising to the immediate left and loose rock falling sharply into the lake to the right. Rockslides, although not common, were always a concern.
On this particular day the tracks had been patrolled just a half-hour prior to the arrival of the train but, nonetheless, as the train rounded the final sharp curve heading into what is commonly referred to as “The Narrows” — where the lake all but disappears for a time before opening up again near the town of Moyie — Bert Huxtable, keeping lookout from the cab’s left window, saw, to his dismay, a large rock slide resting directly on the rails ahead. From his estimated distance of 75 yards, at a speed of 20 mph, there would be a time lapse of about eight seconds before the inevitable collision. Bert gave a loud cry of warning as engineer Gammon, having also spotted the obstruction, set the brakes and closed the throttle. In the words of Harry Gammon, “Bert tumbled out the cab window. Bob stayed with me when we struck the slide to plow through it. The engine tilted and I jumped, landing on the rocks below the tracks and rolling into the lake. When I came to, I was struggling deep down in the lake … I fought my way up to daylight and swam ashore to see Huxtable walking by the side of the track. He was bleeding and quite badly hurt by his fall from the cab.”
Some of the many rocks scattered on the tracks measured fifteen feet across, causing the locomotive to partly reverse direction as it plunged into the lake, dragging the coal tender directly behind the engine and two others cars — one also loaded with coal — into the cold, murky water.
Both Bert Huxtable and Harry Gammon, recovering from their ordeal, and Ted Gummer and William Long, both unscathed, quickly realized that not only was there no sign of Bob Eley, but that the passenger train was due along the line in a very short time. A runner was sent to flag it down and managed to halt it in time.
A search of the crash scene found no trace of fireman Eley. Only the top of the locomotive windows were visible in the water and the interior appeared to be at least partially filled with coal thrown from the tender.
By late afternoon the decision was made to bring in a professional diver from Vancouver. He arrived Sunday and began searching for the fireman’s body the following day. On Wednesday afternoon he uncovered Bob Eley’s feet submerged beneath a large heap of coal and debris in the lake, some distance from the engine. The body was extricated on Thursday and brought to Cranbrook.
The death of Bob Eley, a man, according to his obituary, of exemplary character and of a quiet disposition, aroused great sympathy in the community. The funeral at the Baptist church on the corner of 11th Avenue and 1st Street, was largely attended. Among the hymns, somewhat ironically, was the tune “Rock of Ages.”
A cortege of almost one hundred people followed by 25 cars followed the hearse to the General Cemetery where Bob was laid to rest. His now weathered gravestone (pictured above) carries the inscription: In the midst of life we are in death.”
Things gradually returned to normal for the survivors of the crash, all of whom continued working the rails for years to come. It is safe to say that nothing was ever quite normal again for Mabel Eley and her four young children. The day after the accident Mrs. Eley was quoted as stating, “I must bear up for the sake of my little ones – Bobby’s children and mine. It has been so willed that Bob died in the performance of his duty…We cannot help but think of the terrible calamity that would have ensued had it been not Bob’s train but the passenger that was following a few minutes behind that had plunged through that rock slide into the lake.”
As for the badly damaged locomotive No. 3885, it and the other cars were removed from the lake within days. The engine was sent back to the Montreal Locomotive Works from whence it came. Its fate from that time to now is unknown.