The Rail Tragedy at Aulac

In recent weeks people around the world have been gripped by the crash of Swissair Flight 111 into the Atlantic Ocean off Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia. Sadly, in the late twentieth century tragedies involving aircraft have become all too common.

Although the Tantramar region has never experienced such a massive catastrophe, it has had, on a smaller scale, a number of travel related accidents. One of these occurred near Aulac, on Sept. 23, 1913.

A headline in the Moncton Daily Times on Sept. 24 summarized what happened: Four Enginemen Die At Their Posts — One Of The Worst Wrecks In The History Of The Intercolonial It then went on to record the shocking details, from the viewpoint of an on-the-spot reporter, who arrived at Aulac the morning following the wreck. The accident had taken place the previous afternoon, at about 16:30, when two freight trains were involved in a head-on collision.

The location was at a point on the ICR timetable known as Siddall’s Cut, about a mile east of Aulac or about six miles east of Sackville. The collision took place on a curve, and it is estimated that about 20 cars containing freight of every description telescoped some of them piling on top of one another, while others were smashed into splinters.

The reporter continued: On viewing the wreck one would think that the boxcars were made of tissue or other weak material. The strongly built cars, some fortified with steel, were broken into fragments, which gives some idea of the force of the collision.

One train #231, a way freight, was on its way to Moncton and running about two hours late. The other train in the wreck, known as #234, a special from Moncton was bound for Truro. It was also running behind time.

The four immediate fatalities were: engineers Enoch Rushton, Moncton; Frank Lynds, Truro and firemen Byron Colpitts, Moncton and Oscar Hingley of Truro. Two days later the forward brakeman on the Truro bound train, Whitman Banks, died in hospital at Amherst. The other brakeman, Monctonian Robert Sharpe, although badly injured, miraculously survived the ordeal, as did the two conductors, George Armstrong of Moncton and John D. MacDonald from Truro.

A subsequent investigation chaired by coroner Dr J. O. Calkin of Sackville, pinpointed the cause of the accident. The head-on collision was caused by the fact that the crew of Train #231 left Amherst when they should have remained until Train #234 arrived or until they received orders to proceed. In our opinion the accident could have been avoided had the operator at Amherst answered the calls made by the Moncton dispatcher between 15:25 and 16:15 o’clock; or had he reported the departure of Train #231 as he should have done.

One positive note in the tragedy was the speed with which medical assistance arrived from both Sackville and Amherst. In addition, two wrecking trains, were immediately on their way from Moncton and Truro. Their early arrival was especially fortunate as one of the overturned cars contained explosives, raising the danger of fire and an even greater conflagration. In less than two days, traffic on the main Intercolonial line resumed.

Not surprisingly, in the days that followed, all local newspapers, including the Sackville Tribune, gave front page coverage to the accident. In a strongly worded editorial the Amherst Daily News called for doubletracking the Intercolonial Railway.

While it was clear that human error was a factor in the calamity unusually heavy rail traffic also played a part. The editorial concluded: The money that is lost by such disasters as occurred at Aulac, would go a long way toward paying the interest on the investment of doubletracking.

Unfortunately, the tragedy at Aulac was not the only such incident on the Intercolonial or its successor rail lines. I would be pleased to hear from anyone who may be able to provide information concerning other railway related stories that may be of interest to Flashback readers.