An upended mail car marks the scene.

An upended mail car marks the scene.

Tragedy at Fassiferne

Janus looks at the dark, cold night of January 6, 1950

Jim Cameron

The winter of 1949-50 was harsh by any standards. What had been a mild December began to turn as the New Year approached; one foot of snow soon became two while the temperature dropped from -9 F (-23 C) on January 1 to -37 F (-38 C) by January 3. The snow continued to fall, eventually reaching a depth of four-and-a-half feet. Although there was a full moon in early January, few ventured out to see it.

And so it was, in the cold, dark, early morning hours of Friday, Jan. 6, that a local freight engine pulled out of the CPR yard heading west. Its first destination was the nearby railway siding of Fassiferne, about seven kilometres west of town to await the scheduled passing of passenger train No. 12, heading through Cranbrook from the west.

Freight train No. 73 was under the control of five local men: engineer Peter Linton, freight conductor Charles Larson, fireman H. E. Hutton, head trainman (brakeman) P.E. Rowan and rear-end trainman (brakeman) William Myles.

The train was helped along the climb out of the Cranbrook yard by a “pusher” engine, although the term “puller” would have been more appropriate as the extra locomotive was at the front of the train. Once the freight was in place along the side track the pusher would be released and return to town.

Arriving at the siding on schedule, trainman Rowan, a six-week graduate from “student” to “qualified trainman,” stepped into the blackness to cut the pusher free and switch the west line. At the same time, trainman Myles closed the rear end switch. The freight train was now safely on the siding with the passenger train cleared to pass on its way into the city.

Myles made his way to the front of the train to join Hutton and Linton in the cab while conductor Larson stayed in the caboose to do paperwork. Rowan entered the engine soon after.

“Is the switch lined up?” asked Linton. “Yes”, replied Rowan.

It was not long before Hutton realized the eastbound train was approaching. He could clearly see the headlight reflecting in the surrounding air. Rowan also spotted it and cried, “Here she comes,” as he jumped down from the cab between the two tracks to spot the passing engine number. Hutton went to the left door of the cab to do the same. He later recalled the approaching headlight “was like the sun shining in my face.”

Passenger train No. 12, approaching from around a sharp curve to the west at a speed of about 35 mph, could see little as the train neared Fassiferne. Fireman Fortier could not spot the switch lamp nor could he see the switch “target” used to visually designate the switch setting. He was not alarmed until engineer Killins suddenly threw the brakes as the switch came into view. Killins had spotted the switch target signaling the wrong direction and hit the brakes about fifty feet away. Then, “I hung on,” Killins stated. Fortier wasted no time in jumping from the racing engine through a side window.

Something had gone terribly wrong. The heavy passenger train followed the direction of the switch and plowed into the front of the idle freight locomotive, driving itself directly into the freight locomotive’s oil tank and instantly killing engineer Linton. The flaming oil forced from the freight locomotive firebox enveloped trainman Myles as shock waves shattered the boxcars to the rear.

As the passenger train slowly ground to a halt, the body of a baggage car behind the engine slid off the tracks into a ditch to the left, leaving its wheels on the tracks. A second baggage car behind the engine landed on the east side of the tracks while a mail car ground relentlessly forward, eventually coming to rest jutting high into the frozen air. It was a rude awakening for many of the passengers, among them the Trail Smoke Eaters hockey team travelling to Kimberley for a weekend pair of games. Accompanying the team was their medical trainer who immediately set the players to work attending to the shocked and injured passengers. Unusual as it may seem, it was necessary to awaken passengers at the rear of the train who were completely unaware of the accident.

Fireman Fortier, suffering only minor injuries, returned immediately to the locomotive to find engineer Killins unharmed but trapped in his seat. Fortier passed him a crowbar and then rushed to the freight engine where he unsuccessfully attempted to extinguish the flames with a fire extinguisher. Killins pried himself free and immediately went to help pull Myles from the wreckage and place him in the snow to extinguish the flames. William Myles died on the scene.

Hutton, one moment standing in the doorway with “the sun shining in his face” awoke hanging by his feet from the engine, relatively unscathed. Rowan, on the ground at the time, regained consciousness while being tended by a Trail hockey player and was soon removed to the Cranbrook hospital suffering from leg and foot fractures. Medical teams soon arrived from town, having been called from a line telephone by conductor Larson immediately following the impact. Passengers, none of whom were severely injured, were ferried to town by Star Taxi.

Within the week a Cranbrook coroner’s jury concluded: “We, the jury find … that the accident resulted from an open switch and we attach negligence on the entire crew of train No. 73 [and further] that the west switch at the Fassiferne siding be removed to a site where greater visibility is assured.”

And so it was in the cold, dark, early morning hours of Jan. 6, 1950.

Just Posted

Students at Creston Valley Secondary School put together an art installation of a replica residential school room. (Photo by Kelsey Yates)
Creston students create art installation of residential school room

The replica was decorated with a small bed, school uniform, and notes written with pleas for help

A tent housing a mobile vaccination clinic. (Interior Health/Contributed)
Second dose vaccinations accelerating throughout region: Interior Health

To date, more than 675,000 doses have been administered throughout the region

1914
It happened this week in 1914

June 13 - 19: Compiled by Dave Humphrey from the archived newspapers… Continue reading

Prince Charles Secondary School
School District 8 votes in favour of name change for Secondary School in Creston

In an act of reconciliation, a new name will be chosen for Prince Charles Secondary School

Kootenay-Columbia MP Rob Morrison. Photo courtesy Conservative Party of Canada.
MP Morrison appointed to parliamentary national security committee

Kootenay-Columbia parliamentarian one of five candidates appointed to national security committee

People line up to get their COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination centre, Thursday, June 10, 2021 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Vaccines, low COVID case counts increase Father’s Day hope, but risk is still there

Expert says people will have to do their own risk calculus before popping in on Papa

FILE – A science class at L.A. Matheson Secondary in Surrey, B.C. on March 12, 2021. (Lauren Collins/Surrey Now Leader)
Teachers’ union wants more COVID transmission data as B.C. prepares for back-to-school

BCTF says that details will be important as province works on plan for September

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry outlines B.C.’s COVID-19 restart plan, May 25, 2021, including larger gatherings and a possible easing of mandatory masks on July 1. (B.C. government photo)
B.C. records 120 new COVID-19 cases, second vaccines accelerating

Lower Pfizer deliveries for early July, Moderna shipments up

A Heffley Creek peacock caught not one - but two - lifts on a logging truck this month. (Photo submitted)
Heffley Creek-area peacock hops logging trucks in search of love

Peacock hitched two lifts in the past month

The Calgary skyline is seen on Friday, Sept. 15, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
2 deaths from COVID-19 Delta variant in Alberta, 1 patient was fully immunized

Kerry Williamson with Alberta Health Services says the patients likely acquired the virus in the hospital

The first suspension bridge is the tallest in Canada, with a second suspension bridge just below it. The two are connected by a trail that’s just over 1 km. (Claire Palmer photo)
PHOTOS: The highest suspension bridges in Canada just opened in B.C.

The Skybridge in Golden allows visitors to take in views standing at 130 and 80 metres

BC Green Party leader and Cowichan Valley MLA Sonia Furstenau introduced a petition to the provincial legislature on Thursday calling for the end of old-growth logging in the province. (File photo)
BC Green leader Furstenau introduces old-growth logging petition

Party calls for the end of old-growth logging as protests in Fairy Creek continue

B.C. Premier John Horgan leaves his office for a news conference in the legislature rose garden, June 3, 2020. (B.C. government photo)
B.C. premier roasted for office budget, taxing COVID-19 benefits

Youth addiction law that triggered election hasn’t appeared

A vial containing the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine is shown at a vaccination site in Marcq en Baroeul, outside Lille, northern France, Saturday, March 20, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Michel Spingler
mRNA vaccines ‘preferred’ for all Canadians, including as 2nd dose after AstraZeneca: NACI

New recommendations prioritizes Pfizer, Moderna in almost all cases

Most Read