St-Hilaire train disaster

Last updated

St-Hilaire train disaster
Beloeil bridge train accident, 1864.jpg
Photograph of the disaster by A. Bazinet & Co Montreal [1]
DateJune 29, 1864;159 years ago (1864-06-29)
1:20 a.m.
Location Otterburn Park, near Mont-Saint-Hilaire, Quebec
Country Province of Canada
Line Grand Trunk Railway
Incident typeSwing bridge open
Cause Signal passed at danger

The St-Hilaire train disaster occurred on June 29, 1864, near the present-day town of Mont-Saint-Hilaire, Quebec. A passenger train fell through an open swing bridge into the Richelieu River after the crew failed to obey a stop signal. The widely accepted death toll is 99 people. [2] The disaster remains the worst railway accident in Canadian history. [3] [4]



During the 19th century, the Richelieu River served as an important waterway for trade between New York City and Montreal. Tourism also greatly developed in the area due to the steamboats that travelled up and down the river. The Belœil Bridge was built as a swing bridge so that the railway would not interrupt the shipping lanes. [5] The bridge connects the present-day municipalities of Otterburn Park, on the river's east bank, with McMasterville, on its west bank. Other nearby municipalities are Mont-St-Hilaire, on the east bank, and Beloeil, on the west bank.

The British-owned Grand Trunk Railroad company had been founded in 1852 to provide railroads in what is now Ontario and Quebec. [6] By the early 1860s, the cost of building the railroad system together with the failure to achieve expected levels of usage left the company deeply in debt. [6]


On June 29, 1864, a Grand Trunk train carrying between 354 and 475 passengers, many of them German and Polish immigrants, was travelling from Quebec City to Montreal. [3] [7] According to his own testimony the engineer in charge of the train, William Burnie, had been born in Glasgow in 1838, immigrated to Montreal at the age of 8, was employed by the Grand Trunk from 1858 onward, and had been promoted to the rank of locomotive engineer on 18 June 1864. [8]

The passengers had arrived in a ship from the city-state of the Free City of Hamburg the previous day. Specialized immigration cars, colonist cars, had not yet been developed for North American immigration, so the passengers were crammed into nine crudely converted box cars and one old passenger car. [4]

At around 1:20 a.m. local time the train was approaching the Belœil Bridge. [9] The sky was clear that night. [10] The swing bridge had been opened to allow the passage of five barges and a steamer ship. A red light 1.6 km (1 mi) ahead of the bridge signalled to the train that the crossing was open and it needed to slow. [7] However, the light was not acknowledged by the conductor, Thomas Finn, or the engineer, William Burnie, and the train continued towards the bridge from the east. [9] [11] Burnie's decision not to stop before the bridge was a violation of the safety laws in Canada East (modern day Quebec). [10]

Artist's impression of the recovery effort, published in The Illustrated London News. Beloeil train disaster Illustrated London News summer of 1864.png
Artist's impression of the recovery effort, published in The Illustrated London News.

At 1:20 a.m. the train came onto the bridge and fell through the open gap. The engine and eleven coaches fell one after another on top of each other, crushing a barge underneath. The train and barge sank into an area of the river with a depth of 3 metres (10 ft). [3]

The crash killed 99 people aboard and approximately 100 more were injured. [3] Among the dead were Thomas Finn and the engine fireman. William Burnie was able to escape the wreck with slight injuries. [3] [9] The numismatist Alfred Sandham who was living in Montreal at the time described the scene: "The cars were literally broken to pieces, and between the piers of the bridge lay the sunken vessels covered with the wreckage of the cars, amongst which were entangled the bruised and mangled bodies of the unfortune victims". [12] One witness described the scene: “It seemed as if they had been placed under a press of enormous power and crushed into an unrecognizable mass of splinters and iron, mixed here and there with car wheels in every position, shreds of clothing, loaves of bread, bundles, and human bodies bruised, battered and covered with blood." [10] A journalist from The Montreal Gazette newspaper reported the scene: "A shapeless blue mass of heads and hands and feet protruded among the splinters and framework and gradually resolved itself into a closely packed mass of human beings, all ragged and bloody and dented and dinged from crown to foot with blue bruises." [10]


Survivors were rescued by the crews of the steamer and barges, who in some cases had to chop open the sides of the sinking boxcars. [4] The Grand Trunk Railway sent large numbers of men to assist the recovery and relief efforts the following day. The rescue effort was supported by members of the German Society of Montreal, the St. George's Society of Montreal, the St. Patrick's Society of Montreal and the Irish Protestant Benevolent Society of Montreal. [13] The habitants helped to pull the wounded out of the wreckage and makeshift hospitals were set up in buildings near the incident. [10] Roger Cloutier of the Beloeil-Mont-Saint-Hilaire Historical Society stated In 2013: "Several residents of Beloeil and surrounding towns came to lend a hand to rescue as many survivors as possible". [14] The financially struggling Grand Trunk Railroad company, which feared a blot on its reputation, made a great point of assisting the victims. [10]

The hospitals and other institutions in nearby Montreal were used for the injured passengers. Most of the injured were treated at the Protestant hospital and Catholic hospital, namely Montreal General and Hotel Dieu. [10] Some of the most badly injured had to be treated at the railroad shed as they arrived in Montreal. [10] The dead were also brought to Montreal and buried in the Mount Royal and Roman Catholic cemeteries. [15] Thomas Roddick, a young doctor from the British colony of Newfoundland who was visiting Montreal, was asked by George Fenwick, a surgeon at Montreal General, to assist with treating the injured. [16] Roddick, who had been planning to go to Edinburgh for more medical studies, ended up staying in Montreal as a result of his experiences with treating the injured as Fenwick was impressed with his skills. [17] Roddick became a prominent doctor in Montreal and was knighted by King George V in 1914 for his medical work. [17]


The Grand Trunk Railway tried to blame the disaster on the conductor and engineer for failing to obey the standing order to stop before crossing the bridge. The engineer, who had only recently been hired, claimed that he was not familiar with the route and that he did not see the signal. He also claimed that the signal was not clear enough for him to see. [9] [11] Burnie was convicted of negligence on 16 July 1864 and sentenced to 10 years in prison. [14] [10] Burnie claimed that he did not know the route very well, but the fact that he admitted that he knew he had to stop his train before crossing the bridge was strong evidence against him. [10]

On October 5, 1864, a grand jury placed full responsibility for the disaster on the Grand Trunk Railway for negligence in failing to ensure all trains stopped before crossing the bridge as required by statute: "…the Grand Jury consider it their duty to reiterate their solemn conviction that the Grand Trunk Railway Company of Canada are mainly responsible for the melancholy catastrophe of the 29th of June last, and the great destruction of life caused thereat, and that they trust the said Company will be found amenable to tribunal for their shameful treatment of their numerous passengers on that occasion." [18] However, the company was only given a reprimand for "inadequate supervision". [10]

See also


Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Canadian National Railway</span> Canadian Class I freight railway company

The Canadian National Railway Company is a Canadian Class I freight railway headquartered in Montreal, Quebec, which serves Canada and the Midwestern and Southern United States.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Grand Trunk Railway</span> British-owned railway in Canada and New England

The Grand Trunk Railway was a railway system that operated in the Canadian provinces of Quebec and Ontario and in the American states of Connecticut, Maine, Michigan, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont. The railway was operated from headquarters in Montreal, Quebec, with corporate headquarters in London, United Kingdom. It cost an estimated $160 million to build. The Grand Trunk, its subsidiaries, and the Canadian Government Railways were precursors of today's Canadian National Railway.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Beloeil, Quebec</span> City in Quebec, Canada

Beloeil is city in Quebec, Canada. It is a suburb of Montreal, on the South Shore and is on the Richelieu River, 32 kilometres (20 mi) east of Montreal. According to the official Commission de toponymie du Québec, the name is written Belœil with an oe ligature; however, other sources avoid the ligature, including the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and the town's own official website.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Mont-Saint-Hilaire</span> City in Quebec, Canada

Mont-Saint-Hilaire is a suburb of Montreal on the South Shore of southeastern Quebec, Canada, on the Richelieu River in the Regional County Municipality of La Vallée-du-Richelieu. The population as of the Canada 2011 Census was 18,200. The city is named after the Mont Saint-Hilaire.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Big Bayou Canot rail accident</span> 1993 train wreck in Alabama, U.S.

On September 22, 1993, an Amtrak train derailed on the CSX Transportation Big Bayou Canot Bridge near Mobile, Alabama, United States. It was caused by displacement of a span and deformation of the rails when a tow of heavy barges collided with the rail bridge eight minutes earlier. Forty-seven people were killed and 103 more were injured. To date, it is the deadliest train wreck in both Amtrak's history and Alabama's railway history. It is also the worst rail disaster in the United States since the 1958 Newark Bay rail accident, in which 48 people died.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">St. Lawrence and Atlantic Railroad</span> Railroad in northern New England

The St. Lawrence and Atlantic Railroad, known as St-Laurent et Atlantique Quebec in Canada, is a short-line railway operating between Portland, Maine, on the Atlantic Ocean, and Montreal, Quebec, on the St. Lawrence River. It crosses the Canada–US border at Norton, Vermont, and Stanhope, Quebec, and is owned by short-line operator Genesee & Wyoming.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Moveable bridge</span> Bridge that moves to allow passage, usually of watercraft

A moveable bridge, or movable bridge, is a bridge that moves to allow passage for boats or barges. In American English, the term is synonymous with drawbridge, and the latter is the common term, but drawbridge can be limited to the narrower, historical definition used in some other forms of English, in which drawbridge refers to only a specific type of moveable bridge often found in castles.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Great Western Railway (Ontario)</span> Historic railway in Ontario, Canada

The Great Western Railway was a railway that operated in Canada West, today's province of Ontario, Canada. It was the first railway chartered in the province, receiving its original charter as the London and Gore Railroad on March 6, 1834, before receiving its final name when it was rechartered in 1845.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Otterburn Park</span> City in Quebec, Canada

Otterburn Park is a small town located 40 kilometres (25 mi) east of Montreal, Quebec, Canada. The population as of the Canada 2011 Census was 8,450. The town lies south of Mont-Saint-Hilaire on the Richelieu River and is one of the few officially bilingual towns in Quebec.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Montreal and Southern Counties Railway</span> Former interurban streetcar line in Quebec

The Montreal and Southern Counties Railway Company was an electric interurban streetcar line that served communities between Montreal and Granby from 1909 until 1956. A second branch served the city of Longueuil. Operated by the Canadian National Railway (CN), the M&SCRC ran trams on tracks in the street in Montreal and closer South Shore communities, and on separate right of way in rural areas.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Norwalk rail accident</span> 1853 railroad accident in Connecticut

The Norwalk rail accident occurred on May 6, 1853, in Norwalk, Connecticut, and was the first major U.S. railroad bridge disaster; 48 were killed when a train travelling at 50 mph plunged into the Norwalk Harbor off of an open draw (swing) bridge.


  1. A sketch based on this photograph appears in magazine "Harper's Weekly" July 23, 1864 p.477
  2. "Grand Trunk Railway of Canada". Historica Canada . Retrieved 11 April 2011.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 Halliday, Hugh A. (18 September 2014). "Railway Disasters". Historica Foundation of Canada. Retrieved 29 June 2021.
  4. 1 2 3 Thompson, John (July–August 1999). "The Immigrant Special, June 29, 1864" (PDF). Canadian Rail #471. pp. 91–110. Retrieved 29 June 2020.
  5. "MP-0000.1452.84 Richelieu River, Belœil Mountain, St. Hilaire, QC, about 1870". McCord Museum of Canadian History. Retrieved 18 December 2008.
  6. 1 2 Marsh, James. "Grand Trunk Railway of Canada". Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved 13 September 2022.
  7. 1 2 "Railway Disaster". Library and Archives Canada. Archived from the original on 4 February 2012. Retrieved 29 June 2012.
  8. "The Burnie Habeas Corpus". The Montreal Witness. 27 July 1864. Retrieved 14 September 2022.
  9. 1 2 3 4 "Fearful Railroad Accident" (PDF). The New York Times . 30 June 1864. Retrieved 9 November 2008.
  10. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 Kalbfleisch, John (21 March 1992). "A tale of two train wrecks; One engineer was hailed a hero, another was jailed". The Montreal Gazette. Retrieved 13 September 2022.
  11. 1 2 "Keys to History". McCord Museum of Canadian History. Retrieved 11 November 2008.
  12. Sandham 1870, p. 169.
  13. "Frightful Railway Accident". The Irish Canadian. 6 July 1864.
  14. 1 2 Laramee, Isabelle (11 July 2013). "Beloeil a aussi eu son train de l'enfer". Le Express. Retrieved 13 September 2022.
  15. Alfred Sandham (1870). Ville-Marie, Or, Sketches of Montreal, p. 169.
  16. Brice Frost 1980, pp. 50–51.
  17. 1 2 Brice Frost 1980, p. 51.
  18. Montreal Witness, 8 October 1864, reprinted by Canadian Rail, The Magazine of Canada's Railway History, No. 471 July–August 1999 pp. 108–110.

45°32′53″N73°12′36″W / 45.54806°N 73.21000°W / 45.54806; -73.21000