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Locomotive 508 website is live!

Locomotive website is now online and this is the opening page so far…

This story will intrigue most of you who have a thing for local historical events. It won’t give you all the answers pertaining to locomotive No. 508 but it will at least make you aware of its existence and its colorful history.

Last fall I received Margaret Marceau’s book entitled “Grand Falls Yesterdays” for my birthday. Margaret Marceau was fond of Grand Falls history and dedicated much of her life documenting historical events in the area. Needless to say it’s a very addictive book for people interested in our Town’s past. I came upon one very interesting event that occurred back in the year 1900. Mind you there are plenty of eventful moments described in the book but this specific one caught my eye. When I read the railroad section of the book, I saw a picture of an old collapsed railway bridge over the St.-John River. What was interesting about this photo was that there was a train on it at the time of the accident! This photo showed most of the train submerged with the remainder dangling from the top of the pier. A very large disaster for our little town back then.

Photo: Grand Falls Museum

Back in January 2003 while testing steel piles for the construction of a new bridge over the railroad in Grand Falls, I was talking to some DOT inspectors and we started speaking about old trains. It just so happened that I had Margaret’s book in my truck so I went to get it. I showed them the photo of the collapsed bridge thinking they might find it interesting. I mentioned that some of the local rumors suggest it was never salvaged and still lay at the bottom of the St.-John River. I also told them that a local resident told me that two men were diving and exploring the bottom of the river in search of the locomotive a few years ago. He even went on to say that they had found the locomotive and reported that to him before they left. One of the DOT inspectors mentioned that a huge barge was coming to the area this summer (2003). The barge is needed in order to complete the work currently being done on the new Trans Canada Highway bridge crossing the St.-John River. We all agreed it would be nice to know for sure if an old locomotive still rests at the bottom of the river. The barge could possibly be available for salvaging the locomotive because of its close proximity several hundred meters up river. A barge of this capacity with a 250 ton crane doesn't come to the area often.

I talked to many locals over several weeks wanting to know if they knew anything of the accident and details of the event. Most of them were unaware of the accident because it happened in 1900. The more I read about the accident the more interesting it became. The following was taken from of Margaret’s article, which contain some extra text that did not make it to print in her book.

“We paused for several minutes in our stroll along the beach to look at the cribwork and abutments of the old railway bridge. Until that moment I hadn’t realized that the railway bridge was not always where it is now, though I had vaguely noted that in old pictures of the town, the railway bridge seemed much nearer. Several people had remarked to me that the bridge actually collapsed twice, so the other day when I had a spare moment I looked it up. The railway reached Grand Falls in 1877 and work on the first bridge was completed the following year. It was of course at that time the New Brunswick Railway. The first bridge collapse was in 1896 when part of it washed away with the spring freshet in April. Rebuilding was completed by midsummer and I believe at this time the site chosen was slightly up river with a firmer rock base, though the river at the new site was slightly wider than the one originally chosen.

Four years later the bridge collapsed again.” At this point she quotes the following from The story of old N.B. Railways. “On the 21st of June, 1900, the bridge over the St.-John River at Grand Falls fell when the train from Edmundston was crossing. The train crashed into twenty feet of water. The engineer was Walter Matthews; fireman, William McCluskey; brakeman, Gabriel Poitras; Baggageman, Archille Pelletier; and the conductor was Charles Henderson. The locomotive was CPR No. 508. The following account of the accident appeared in the Railway news, June 28th, 1900:

The terrible accident which occurred at Grand Falls, N.B. on Thursday by the giving way of the CPR railway bridge has so far, we are happy to state, been unattended by loss of life, although Hiram I. Smith, traveler for T. McAvity and Sons, Saint John, James McKenna, traveling passenger agent of the CPR and conductor Henderson of the CPR train went through the bridge were very seriously injured.

There were six passengers in the car at the time of the accident: Hiram Smith; James McKenna;J. O”Neil, an Englishman who is buying lumber in New Brunswick; Dr. C.A. Kirkpatrick of Woodstock; Miss Kierstead of Machias, Me., who was returning home from school; and Harry Henderson, the auditor of the Dominion Express Co. The train which broke through the bridge was made up of seven freight, one first class, and a combination baggage car which went down with the broken span. The locomotive with Engineer Matthews and Fireman McCluskey in the cab sank to the bottom. Neither of them knew how they escaped, but did so almost without a scratch. Mr. McKenna is one of the most seriously injured, one of his arms and one finger are broken, and he is hurt internally, but at the last report was improving.

Smith was severely crushed but no bones broken. Miss Kierstead escaped with a scratched hand. Dr. Kirkpatrick had a cut head, Mr. O’Neil had his left side injured and an arm and ankle sprained. The river where the accident occurred is twenty feet deep and the level of the bridge twenty five feet above water. Friday night about 10 o’clock a CPR engine with crew left Temiscouata Railway to Edmundston and from there over the CPR to the bridge. This engine will assist in transfer of passengers and freight at the Edmundston side of the bridge and assist in raising the wreckage.

I was told at the time by Ralph Kirkpatrick that there was a seventh passenger on the train, presumably unknown to the others. He was a tramp that had hitched a ride and at first, on finding himself in the water, did not dare cry for help for fear of being discovered. He was lucky enough to get hold of timber from the train’s cargo, but as he was carried down river toward the falls, one of his fears overcame the other. He began to cry for help and was rescued before he reached the brink of the falls. Undoubtedly, it being June, the rush of water was less than it would have been earlier in the spring when nothing might have saved him”

So already there is mention of salvage efforts but why did Margaret Marceau find nothing on it. Back in 1900 such a retrieval project would certainly have been of interest to local residents or at least documented somewhere for her to discover. Apparently Margaret could never find out if the locomotive was removed from the river or not. Could it be that plans to salvage locomotive No. 508 were in the works but after further inspection of the damage and the complexity of such work, it was scrapped for cost and/or feasibility reasons and simply left there? Back in those days, heavy equipment necessary to salvage a 35 ton (77,000lbs) locomotive wasn’t easily available like it is today. They could have retrieved it but it surely would have cost a lot of money to put it back in operation. This was a steam locomotive that had left from Edmundston and had a very hot boiler when it crashed into the river. Hot steel boiler introduced in cold water = major rehab work……not to mention the freight cars that fell on top of the sunken engine further damaging the locomotive.

Photo: Grand Falls Museum

So it would seem that the next logical step would be to try to contact somebody from the CPR archives that might be able to assist in my search. After a few hours of searching the internet for contact names and phone numbers I found a CPR corporate historian listed on the website and contacted him via phone in Calgary. I asked him if he could search historical documents for locomotive No. 508 and the accident that happened in Grand Falls back in 1900. He did confirm to me, by fax, that the locomotive in question had indeed served in this area.

He writes: “Here’s what we know of locomotive No. 508: The 4-4-0 standard type locomotive was built in 1885 at Manchester locomotive Works in Manchester, New Hampshire for the New Brunswick Railway (NBR) as their locomotive No. 34. After CPR took over the NBR in a 990 year lease, July 1, 1890, CPR renumbered the locomotive to No. 508 in September 1890. CPR must have fished the locomotive out of the river, because it continued to serve CPR until being disposed (likely scrapped) in February 1910. But this only after it was modified and renumbered as CPR locomotive No. 62 in November 1908. We have the locomotive assignments for July 31, 1904. Locomotive No. 508 was assigned to and maintained out of Edmundston, N.B.”.

They mention that locomotive 508 operated until 1910 and got modified and renumbered in 1908. The company has info on the 1908 upgrades but nothing on the 1900 repairs which would have been extensive? Renumbering locomotives back then also seems to be something that happened frequently because this locomotive started operating as NBR 34…..then renumbered to CPR 508 and according to CPR records it was later renumbered to CPR 62. I also found out from CPR that they do not have much info on the accident itself. Nothing in the archives about the big accident and bridge reconstruction were found. The actual bridge reconstruction was surely the biggest priority for the railroad company after the accident and I suspect the debris was likely pushed aside to make way for emergency bridge reconstruction. The locomotive retrieval was probably the least of their worries. During my investigation, I have also discovered that a lot of historical documents were lost and/or discarded when CPR pulled out of the Maritimes and this may explain the lack of info on their end.

I also learned that in British Columbia there is a sunken locomotive in a lake but the railroad records show the locomotive as being scrapped but with no further details available. Not convinced yet that the locomotive was indeed retrieved.


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