The 1913 Rail Tragedy Revisited

On several occasions I’ve mentioned the importance of contact with readers of these twice monthly columns. Frequently, interesting suggestions for future Flashbacks are made; and often significant new information is provided.

Last autumn, while researching and writing a column on the 1913 Aulac Rail Tragedy, I was hampered by an inability to locate someone who might shed new light on the story. The newspapers of the day, especially the Amherst Daily News, the Moncton Times and the Sackville Tribune gave all the basic details; however, eye witness accounts were few in number. One exception was an account by a Moncton Times reporter who interviewed a number of railway personnel.

A study of photographs accompanying the stories indicated that many people, ranging from children to adults, visited the scene of the accident. Would it be possible to interview someone with first, or perhaps more likely, second hand information of the tragedy? Certainly, those who were present on that tragic day, Sept. 24, 1913, must have told and retold their stories to family and friends. But no such luck!

Imagine then, my pleasure on receiving a letter filling in new and important details of the tragedy. It came from Archie Pennie of Ottawa. His wife’s mother was Vessie Siddall from Aulac. She, along with her three sisters and brother Murray, were born and raised on the Siddall farm, located a mere stone’s throw from the accident. Murray Siddall, it turns out, not only witnessed the crash, he was the first person to arrive on the scene. The story is best told in Archie’s own words:

Murray Siddall inherited the farm from his father George O. Siddall. I visited the farm before it was expropriated [to become part of the national park]. As we walked around the property, he showed me old tombstones that had been there for several hundred years — dating from the days when the Fort was occupied.

Suddenly, a train rounded the curve, enroute from Sackville to Truro. I have always been a railroad ’buff’ and my interest in this passing train set Murray off to tell me about a dramatic accident that occured right at his door step.

Part of his farm was on the marsh across the tracks and access to it was via a tunnel cut through the high embankment that carried the right of way. This tunnel, in railway parlance would be a cut — hence the name Siddall’s Cut.

Murray was about to pass through the cut to attend to chores on the marsh when he heard the sound of an approaching train. He told me that he could hardly believe his eyes when he saw two trains fast approaching each other head-on. Murray was rooted to the ground as there was nothing he could do. The trains ploughed into each other before his eyes.

He tied up his horse and wagon and rushed to the scene of devastation. There he was met by a conductor, whom he knew [John D. MacDonald of Truro]. The conductor asked him to bring the wagon close to the site, near one of the baggage cars.

The car was a shattered wreck, but lying on the ground was a box split open exposing a considerable number of gold bars. Together they loaded the treasure on the wagon and Murray was instructed to take the box and hide it in a safe place until the authorities called for it.

Murray did as requested, and he showed me the dark corner of the barn where the bullion was hidden and covered with straw. Apparently, the authorities were in no hurry, as it was several days before it was picked up.

We came to the conclusion that this was a special shipment of gold enroute from Britain to Ottawa. I wonder if the report that the freight carried explosives was a ‘cover up’ to hide the fact that bullion was on board? Perhaps the story was designed to discourage would-be robbers!

When the Fort was restored, the old Siddall home was moved lock, stock and barrel up to the main highway. [It still stands and is occupied by Jean, a granddaughter of Murray Siddall, and her husband Al Amos.] In any event, Murray told a story that appealed to me greatly and your article put it all back in my thoughts.

Hats off to Archie Pennie — a first rate story teller!