To railway history buffs British Columbia’s worst railway disaster is known as the Canoe River train wreck; to lawyers studying Canadian legal precedent, it’s the Canoe River case. Neither sobriquet even hints of the fact that it was the Korean War, then raging, that precipitated this tragedy…
November 1950. For the third time in less than half a century, Canada was at war, this time in Korea. This time, it was different only in that it was called a police action; but all the inevitable horrors of human conflict were at full play and all the resources of the Canadian government were called upon to meet our commitments to the UN.
Caught almost flat-footed in peacetime with only a rump of a professional army left from the Second World War, just five years earlier, a call was put out for volunteers. Thousands responded and began training at Camp Shilo, Manitoba, Wainwright, Alberta, and Fort Lewis, Wash.
Nov. 21, 1950, 23 officers and 315 men of the 2nd Regiment of the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery were heading from the Prairies to the coast to embark for Korea, all packed into 17-car west-bound Passenger Extra 3538. At mid-morning, having crossed into British Columbia on the CNR transcontinental mainline, it approached Canoe River, near Valemount in the Rockies and began to ascend a long, winding curve — as, from the opposite direction, the 11-car Vancouver-Montreal Continental Limited entered the same loop, on a downward grade. As fate would have it, this 180-mile-long stretch of mountainous track was the only part of the CNR mainline in that region not protected by automatic block signals.
From a nearby embankment, a forestry worker saw the impending collision and tried to warn the Continental by frantically waving, only to get a friendly wave in return. There was no further warning, no chance even to begin to brake before the locomotives met head-on, killing both engineers and firemen in a screaming meshing of opposing steel and sparks, splintering wood and, worst of all, escaping steam.
The locomotive of the troop train was lifted up and over its tender to come down atop the second car, crushing it. The effect on the other wooden passenger coaches was equally catastrophic. Positioned as they had been between heavier steel cars, the resulting effect was not unlike that of their suddenly being squeezed like a concertina. Some cars imploded, some were upended and pitched from the tracks in a screaming of grinding metal and wood and glass and scalding hot steam that seared then froze the flesh in the -18 C temperature.
In just seconds, 17 of Canada’s Korean army contingent, one as young as 17, most of them in their early 20s, were dead or dying (one made it as far as a hospital), 60 more injured. The final toll, besides the four trainmen, was 17 soldiers killed. Killed without ever having made it to Korea. Killed without ever having left Canadian soil.
The cars at the head of the train had taken the greatest impact, their wreckage reaching as much as 50 feet high, and described by a survivor as not being recognizable “as anything but a jumble of twisted steel and splintered wood”.
In the three hours that it took for a hospital train to arrive from Jasper, Dr. P.S. Kimmett who, with his wife, a nurse, was a passenger on the Continental, took charge.
Those of both trains who weren’t injured overcame their initial shock to do what they could in six-inch-deep snow to help those who were hurt but alive with little in the way of medical aids. Injuries of those aboard the express were minor but not so those of the soldiers. Making the sense of horror all the more excruciating were the cries of the injured and the fact that some of the victims had been dismembered and their body parts, some still in uniform, were scattered about — as they discovered when they tried to extricate what they thought to be a victim, or a whole body, from the carnage. Four of those killed were never found, likely consumed in a fiery explosion that occurred the next day.
How could it happen?
How could two CNR trains have been on the same track at the same time? Who was responsible? Obviously, somebody had to be responsible. Somebody had screwed up and killed 21 men! That somebody had to be punished.
Not surprisingly in a bureaucracy such as Canada’s national railway, that someone was at the bottom of the hierarchy: the telegraph dispatcher who’d taken but failed to relay correctly the Kamloops dispatcher’s order that the troop train pull onto a siding.
That dispatcher was 22-year-old Alfred John Atherton and his trial for manslaughter began in Prince George six months after the tragedy. The Crown based its case on the fact that Atherton, having been alerted to the eastbound express, was to have relayed the order that the troop train pull over at Cedarside until the track was clear. But he hadn’t done so, according to the eastbound’s conductor. Missing from Atherton’s telegraphic dispatch were the crucial words, “at Cedarside”. So the westbound troop train had carried on westward towards disaster.
Enter no less a personage than John Diefenbaker, future Conservative prime minister, then an MP and a practising criminal lawyer. Initially, he declined Atherton’s father, who lived in his constituency and wished to have him serve as his son’s defence counsel. But Diefenbaker was tied up with Parliament, his wife Edna was seriously ill and he wasn’t a member of the British Columbia Bar.
As is so often the case, there’s a fascinating story within a story as to how he did become Atherton’s counsel. Years later, he explained the circumstances (with several discrepancies) in his memoir, One Canada.
He was in Australia, he wrote, attending a Commonwealth parliamentary meeting when the train wreck occurred, which he read about in the press, and an Australian colleague had suggested that it would make for “a likely case” for him. To which Diefenbaker had replied that he wasn’t qualified to practise law in B.C., thus he was unqualified to become involved. And his thoughts returned to the prospect of rejoining his wife Edna for several days in Hawaii on the way back to Canada.
Instead, he received a cable informing him that she’d meet him in Vancouver. There, a second cable awaited him, this one from a doctor that Edna was in a Saskatoon hospital, dangerously ill (with leukemia). She was, in fact, near death by the time he reached her side.
Nevertheless, her thoughts weren’t for herself but for the young railway telegrapher who’d been charged with manslaughter after a calamitous train wreck in British Columbia. She believed that the higher-ups in the CNR were passing the buck for any responsibility and scapegoating young John Atherton. The real issue, as she and many others saw it, was not the so-called incomplete telegram but the fact that those old wooden passenger coaches in which the soldiers were riding had been sandwiched between heavier, stronger coaches of steel, which proved to be a major factor in the resulting human carnage.
Couldn’t he, a crack criminal lawyer, help Atherton?
Diefenbaker agreed with her but pointed out that joining the Bar in B.C. cost a hefty $1,500. To which she replied that she’d already given her word that he’d take up Atherton’s defence. As it happened, Edna Diefenaker didn’t live to see how the trial unravelled.
Diefenbaker’s interviews of Atherton weren’t promising: “Everyone’s hand seemed to be against him.” The CNR, he believed, was railroading its hapless telegrapher. As he put it so colourfully in his memoir, “Atherton had only one passport and that was marked ‘prison.’”
He contacted the B.C. Law Society and paid his fee, to learn that he had to pass an “intensive examination” of provincial statutes; if he failed, there’d be a waiting period before he could try again. He needn’t have worried: the examination was almost farcical, challenging at best to a first-year law student — “or even one who wasn’t” — and he was sworn in as a barrister legally licensed to practise in B.C.
In Prince George for the preliminary hearing, which was well attended because of the public interest, Diefenbaker found himself up against the deputy attorney-general, Col. Eric Pepler. When Atherton was committed for trial at the Spring Assizes, Diefenbaker arranged a continuation of his bail and began his preparations for the trial in May.
He spent weeks studying “the inside and out” of transmissions of railway dispatch messages, a procedure which dated from 1908, until he “knew the rules better than anyone else”. Not only had they been loosely drawn but, in his mind, were so holed that “two teams of horses could have walked through them”. (They would be revised as a result of the wreck.)
Once in court, Col. Pepler asserted that Atherton’s failure to advise the westbound troop train to pull over at Cedarside was the sole cause of the crash. Atherton, the operator at Red Pass Junction, had handed the order he’d written down to the conductor of the troop train, and the Blue River operator had done the same for the Continental crew.
Atherton assured Diefenbaker that he’d included those two vital words, “at Cedarside,” in his order. Tellingly, the Blue River operator was sure that he hadn’t, which explained why the express train thought it had the right-of-way and why the crew of the troop train expected to meet the express at Gosnell, 25 miles west of Cedarside.
The collision occurred south of Valemount, less than a mile east of Canoe River station.
By that time the single precedent that Diefenbaker had turned up for a previous broken telegraph message was the work of a seagull having dropped a fish on the snow-covered wires! It did help his case that the telegraph wires in the Valemount area had been freshly covered with snow the night before and that there’d been a communications gap several days before the wreck. If human failure were involved, Diefenbaker contended, it was that of the Kamloops dispatcher for not noticing Atherton’s omission of “at Cedarside” in his repeat order.
But Diefenbaker had an ace up his sleeve, one which he never revealed until after he’d retired from law practice. Whenever he had a jury trial, he’d place an agent, in this case an articling law student, in the courtroom to monitor the reactions of the public galleries.
He believed their emotions, as revealed by facial expressions and comments, were likely to be those of the jurors who also were ordinary citizens not members of the legal fraternity.
In this way he had a key to what he thought the jury to be thinking.
He then let Pepler have the stage through the first morning, neither interjecting nor asking questions of the various witnesses.
At lunch, his agent informed him that the spectators were mystified by, even indignant at Diefenbaker’s silence. He was supposed to be a top defence lawyer; why didn’t he say something, anything, on Atherton’s behalf?
What he’d been doing was studying his opponent. Not only was Pepler a former army officer as identified by his rank, one who’d served in the First World War, but his manner in court was that of some senior officers who were “superior” not just in rank but in attitude.
The case involved 17 killed soldiers yet Pepler was in effect absolving the railway of any culpability by trying to lay the entire blame on young Atherton. Diefenbaker sensed that jurors could see this conflict of loyalties which Pepler was unconsciously reinforcing with his supercilious manner.
It was during Pepler’s questioning of a senior CNR official that he struck. This witness admitted that the composition of the train, the placing of steel-framed wooden passenger cars between all-steel cars, had been his department’s doing. (This, despite a 1947 order by the Board of Transport that part-wooden passenger coaches not be placed between steel coaches. As with most regulation, however, there was a loophole: wooden cars with steel underframes didn’t qualify as “wooden cars”. Nevertheless, even the CNR had discontinued using them for regular passenger service, relegating them solely to the transporting of military personnel.)
For all the horrendous compounding of tragedy caused by those outdated coaches of wood having, literally, accordioned, the CNR manager said he had no qualms; it was Atherton’s fault with his incomplete message to the trainmen.
Diefenbaker, sarcastically: “I suppose the reason you put those men in wooden cars with steel cars on either end was so that no matter what they might subsequently find in Korea, they’d also be able to say, ‘Well, we had worse than that in Canada.’”
Everything “broke loose,” Diefenbaker recalled. Pepler sputtered, expressed shock: one didn’t say things like that in a B.C. courtroom! The judge was willing to let it pass if defence counsel meant it was a statement not a question. But Diefenbaker said he’d put it to the witness as a question. Both he and His Honour were interrupted by Pepler blurting out that he wanted to make it clear that the Crown wasn’t “concerned about the deaths of a few privates going to Korea”.
“Oh, Colonel, you’re not concerned about the killing of a few privates?” snapped Diefenbaker.
It was pure drama on his part, of course, as he knew full well that Pepler had really meant that the Crown’s charge against Atherton dealt with the death of one of the firemen not the deaths of passengers.
But the damage was done. That the Crown’s case had been scuttled by Pepler’s outburst was made abundantly clear when one of two jurors who were veterans of the First World War muttered a curse at the attorney-general.
Diefenbaker called no witnesses, concentrating instead on cross-examination for the balance of the trial, and reciting the incident of the seagull who’d dropped a fish on the telegraph wires, while taking every opportunity, real and staged, to remind the jury of Pepler’s military career by addressing him as Colonel.
In his hour-long charge to the jury Justice McFarlane pointed out that if they believed Atherton’s story that he’d relayed the troop train’s order as he’d received it, an acquittal was justified. In just 40 minutes jurors returned a verdict of not guilty
The CNR installed block signals on the fatal stretch of track, realigned the blind curve that obscured train crews’ view of the what lay ahead, and, within two years, ordered 302 new all-metal passenger cars.
Too late for the 21 men who died in the Canoe River train wreck which ultimately proved to be beneficial to Diefenbaker’s legal and political career while going down in Canadian history as a tragic sidelight of the Korean War.
Ironically, the RCHA suffered more casualties in this incident than in its first year of action in Korea. A memorial cairn and monument have been erected near the crash site as has a monument at CFB Shilo where a memorial parade is held each year.
Because they were on active duty when killed, the names of the 17 servicemen who died at Canoe River are inscribed in the Korea Book of Remembrance, on the Wall of Remembrance in Brampton, Ont., and on the Korea Cairn in Winnipeg’s Brookside Cemetery.
However, because they never made it to the Korean war zone, they have not been awarded posthumous Canadian Volunteer Service Medals — an injustice according to one of the survivors who has unsuccessfully campaigned to have the medals awarded.