OPINION: Head-on train collision caused appalling loss of life

The ill-fated engine and train of the Wanstead Disaster. Photo courtesy: Lambton County Archives, 15IA – E Wanstead Wreck

The story is little known today, largely forgotten, even in Sarnia.

But speaking of the “Wanstead Wreck” a century ago would evoke the same chill as the words “Lac-Megantic” rail disaster do today.

It happened at night, in a blistering blizzard, 33 kilometres east of Sarnia in the former hamlet of Wanstead, today regarded as a ghost town.

On Dec. 26, 1902, the Grand Trunk Railway’s Pacific Express No. 5 was two hours behind schedule and racing west to Sarnia from London, making up for lost time.

At the same time, a freight train was crawling slowly eastward on the same line of track.

Aboard the passenger train were people from Southern Ontario and the U.S. Midwest. Many were returning to Sarnia-Lambton after Christmas visits with family and friends.

The orders issued by a telegraph operator at Watford to the Pacific Express were muddled. Overworked and inexperienced Grand Trunk staff at Wyoming and Kingscourt Junction further down the line compounded the confusing instructions.

The freight train had just about reached the siding at Wanstead to allow the passenger express to pass. But not soon enough.

In the blinding snow neither of the train engineers sensed the impending doom, which materialized at shocking speed.

For the rest of their lives, survivors remembered the grotesque, agonizing shriek of grinding metal as the engines hit head-on. The violent, rippling impact brought death or injury to almost everyone onboard the express.

The derailed locomotives tumbled into the ditch and a baggage cart catapulted into the air, slamming down on the crowded first-class coach. The shattered car wrenched to a halt as the roof caved in, exposing screaming and dying travellers to the storm.

A fire erupted. As the injured crawled from the wreckage they used their hats and hands to hurl snow at the flames, amid the moans of mangled men, women and children.

Twenty-eight people died at the scene. Another 30 were injured.

Six hours went by before a relief train arrived, backing up all the way from London to Wanstead. It carried a dozen doctors to relieve the surviving nurse who had worked alone aboard the doomed train. The rescuers took the injured to London hospitals.

One newspaper of the day described the Wanstead Wreck as “one of the most terrible and appalling accidents recorded in Canada.”

Though largely forgotten, it remains so to this day.