Was it deliberate? That certainly seemed a possibility in wartime Saskatoon.
At 5:40 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 16, 1943, a Canadian National freight train ploughed into a Canadian Pacific passenger train at the diamond crossing northeast of the Union stockyards. It was the kind of incident that screamed sabotage.
During the dark days of the Second World War, when the Nazis occupied western Europe, Saskatoon readied itself for an enemy invasion.
In September 1941, and then again in October 1942, mock attacks were carried out on the city’s government and communication services. The exercises were intended to prepare citizens for the day when the war reached Saskatoon.
There were also regular fire, police, and first aid drills — involving more than 1,000 men and women — in anticipation of an air attack on Saskatoon. Many citizens genuinely believed that the Luftwaffe might bomb the city. Some might even have lost sleep over the prospect of U-boats prowling the South Saskatchewan.
Salvage drives, meanwhile, encouraged the collection of rags, metal, and rubber for the war effort. The campaigns featured such slogans as “Get in the scrap with your scrap” and “Heap it on Hitler.”
The greatest worry, though, were enemy agents — known as “fifth columnists” — embedded in the city and bent on sabotage. This fear was fed by military officials with overactive imaginations.
The local Canadian Corps claimed the city was home to thousands of pro-Nazi sympathizers disguised as ordinary citizens. And a visiting member of the British Admiralty warned that Nazi spies could relay compromising information to Germany in only minutes.
The January 1943 train collision occurred against this backdrop. Star-Phoenix coverage of the crash was found among war stories about the Allied bombing of Berlin and the North Africa campaign. Those who were already paranoid might have easily concluded that the collision was an act of subversion.
After all, both the CPR passenger train and CN freight train had received all-clear signals on their respective tracks. There was no reason for either train to slow down or even wait. How was that possible?
The initial response from the two railway companies was that it appeared to be a terrible accident — a finding that did not change.
Indeed, it was incredible that this kind of collision had not happened earlier.
Saskatoon prided itself from the early 20th century as the “hub city.” Three railway companies — the Canadian Pacific, Grand Trunk Pacific, and Canadian Northern — had lines to and from the city. (The Grand Trunk Pacific and Canadian Northern were folded into Canadian National Railways after the Great War.)
By 1912, a remarkable 27 passengers trains passed through Saskatoon daily. Freight trains added to the railway traffic.
Because of the number of lines, tracks of competing companies sometimes had to cross one another; these level crossings were known as diamond junctions.
One was located on the city’s west side, northeast of the Union stockyards (east of Dundonald Avenue), where the north-east Canadian National line crossed the east-west Canadian Pacific line. Traffic over these diamond crossings was regulated by lights on the tracks.
CPR passenger train #51 left Saskatoon an hour late on Jan. 16, 1943. It’s not known why the signals were green — probably human error — but the westbound train reached the diamond at the same moment as CN freight #782.
The two locomotives collided and spilled down an embankment, one engine rolling on top of the other. It could have been much worse. If the CP train had reached the diamond only seconds earlier, the CN engine would have ploughed into one of the passenger cars. As it was, only the CP engine and tender went off the track.
Surprisingly, there was only one fatality. Fifty-five-year-old Colin Sands, the engineer of the CN freight, was badly scalded by steam escaping from the locomotive. He died the next day in St. Paul’s hospital.
The other crew members from both trains, including CN fireman H.W. Hall (father of future NHL goalie Glenn Hall), sustained only minor injuries.
Railway crews working with a crane quickly cleared away the wreckage and opened up both lines. Traffic resumed shortly after midnight.
There was a war to be won. And nothing was going to stand in the way of an Allied victory.
A special thanks to Harvey McKee, who told me about the collision.
This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
Photo:Wrecking crews clear away two locomotives from collision.
Photo Source:B-1864 courtesy of Saskatoon Public Library
Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers. Bill was recently appointed to the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour.