Local Hero - Alfred Parkes

This is the panel in the stained glass window of the Church of the Ascension in Ottawa which commemorates the death of Alfred Parks.  Colin Churcher picture.

The Accident

Grand Trunk Railway passenger train No. 27 from Montreal to Ottawa was running to time as it passed through Carlsbad Springs, (also known at that time as Eastman Springs) on Saturday 15 February 1908.  While running at about 35mph, some 4 miles west of Carlsbad Springs, the train hit a broken rail.  The tender of the locomotive, No. 1028, derailed taking the locomotive and train with it.  Engineer Alfred Parkes, 42, applied the emergency brake and the train came to a stand within a train length.  The engine was on its left side while the tender completely turned over.  The baggage car finished up on its right side, the second class coach left the rails and went over at a very sharp angle.  The first class coach toppled over at an angle of about thirty degrees while the parlour car partially left the track but remained upright. 

The fireman, William Robertson Martin, aged 24, was found dead in the engine cab.  He was badly scalded.  Engineer Parkes was alive and still sitting in his seat.  He was quite conscious, though in much pain.  Every effort was made to save his life, but he was too badly scalded.  Apparently no bones were broken but it is believed he inhaled much steam and he was scalded and probably seriously injured internally.  He died the next day at St. Luke's Hospital. 

The Immediate Aftermath

A couple of eye witness accounts have survived.

The Canadian Express Messenger, Griffiths, gave this account:

"I was just getting all my stuff in order as we were within ten minute's run of Ottawa.  Then the crash came.  I was shot over into a corner and the next thing I knew there was a barrel on top of my chest and several boxes piled all over my legs and feet.  Had there been many heavy trunks or weighty packages, I would have fared worse.  I think I must have stood on my head for a while.  I can't remember much about it.  My left arm is very sore yet, and so is my right knee.  It seems my left hand was cut somehow, but I wasn't aware of this until later.  The first thing I saw after I got that barrel off my chest was a square hole in the roof.  This turned out to be the side door, the car being tipped on one side.

"I crawled along over the boxes and then I noticed the steam going over the car.  I knew it could not hurt me, however. Just then somebody called "Are you there?"   I said I was and they asked me if I was hurt and I said "No, I don’t think so.  I guess I am all right".  With some difficulty I got out through the car door and immediately up to my waist in snow and water. I got to my feet very wet.

"Then I made my way up to the engine.  By that time they had poor Martin out on the snow.”

Alderman Mcgrath was a passenger on the train.  He said:

“We were sitting on the side of the car which was lowest when it turned over.  In an endeavour to get out we broke several windows and released some children, of whom there were several in the car.  But of course the women could not be liberated in that way.  For a time we thought that the doors were blocked by the coaches following and anxiously we began to look for a way out. Just then a train hand forced a door open and we quickly emptied the car.  Making my way as fast as possible to the front I found the engine lying on its side, fireman Martin was already dead underneath it.  At his seat in the cab was Parkes, the engineer.  He was quite conscious, though in much pain.  We helped him down from the engine and he walked to the end of the train.  But as he reached the steps of the last car he collapsed and had to be carried into the coach.  Coming out again I heard cries of "Help".  On top of the baggage coach was Rev. Rural Dean Taylor (of Holy Trinity Church) and after much difficulty we got him down from his position.  By that time a new peril began to threaten.  The flames were beginning to increase in the firebox of the engine and fearing that the fire would spread to the baggage car, we set to work and succeeded in controlling it with snow although we were called upon to attend to it on three different occasions. By this time the passengers began to feel distressed.  On no side was there any sign of either house or bush and to add to the excitement and difficulty many of the women were afraid to enter the parlour car which was standing at a considerable tilt to one side.  They feared that, with the entrance of the passengers, the car would topple over as the others had done and that the lamps, which were still burning, would set the coach afire.

“Finally, however, the fears were overcome by the persuasions of the men assisted by the train hands.  Having succeeded in quieting the passengers, we began to feel alarmed lest another train should come along and crash into the wreck.  Two trainmen started out to telegraph the news of the occurrence from Eastman's Springs, but after they had been gone some time we began to have considerable apprehensions on the grounds that as both of them were injured more or less when they started that they might not reach their destination.  Mr. Mcbride volunteered to see if they had fallen in the snow, but before he had proceeded more than three quarters of a mile he was forced to return leaving a lantern on the track as a signal.  All the men stayed outside and worked around.  Conductor Leamy's efforts were heroic.”

The Rescue

A report of the accident reached Mr. Morley Donaldson, superintendent of the Ottawa division of the GTR and he at once had a relief train hurried to the spot. Mr. J.R. Kirkpatrick, Trainmaster, was in charge of the relief train which arrived at two o'clock in the morning in a fierce storm of sleet and snow.  Doctors and staff of St. Lukes Hospital went on this train which brought the passengers into Ottawa.  A shoo-fly was built around the wreck to allow trains to by-pass the obstruction which was removed by the use of steam wrecking cranes.

The Investigation

It was quickly determined that the cause of the derailment was a broken rail.  It had been broken by the previous train which was freight train 98, engine 798, with 21 cars which passed over that line about an hour prior to train 27.  The rail was 80 lb Dominion Iron & Steel rolled in June 1906 in Sydney, Nova Scotia and put in the track the same month.  It was a clean break and showed no previous defect. The derailed engine, #1028, was built in 1907 by the Grand Trunk Railway.  It had flat spots 3" long on the driving wheels but they were old and partly worn off.  There were a series of shorter skids on the wheels which indicated that they had frequently skidded.  It was felt that Parkes’ prompt action in applying the brake reduced the seriousness of the wreck and it was pointed out that he stayed at his post and made no attempt to save himself by jumping.

It was concluded by both the Board of Railway Commissioners and the Coroner’s inquest that the deaths were accidental.

The Stained Glass Window

Alfred Parkes was a popular man on the railway and his selfless act may well have prevented a greater toll. The funeral took place at Holy Trinity church (now the Church of the Ascension) on Echo Drive and he was buried at Beechwood Cemetary.  Some time after this, the family of Alfred Parkes placed a panel in the stained glass window of the Church of the Ascension which you can see today.

An Aside

It is surprising that there was no comment made on the fact that the rail in question was new and had only been in use for about 18 months.  This was a bad winter for broken rails.  54 broken rails were found in 46 days between Coteau and Ottawa. 

There were two other derailments in the Ottawa area attributed to broken rails in the same month.

- A broken rail was responsible for an accident to the Canadian Pacific Pontiac mixed train.  While rounding a curve near Deschene a rail broke after the engine and tender had passed over it and four freight cars and one passenger car were derailed and rolled into the ditch.

- A broken rail caused a run off and partial wreck of the westbound Winnipeg Express at Eganville Junction four miles west of Renfrew on the Canadian Pacific.  The baggage car slid down the embankment and was standing on end and the mail car, dining car and sleeper were turned over on their side.  The other four coaches simply left the track and were resting on the ties.

It would be another thirty years before the rail manufacturers developed a controlled cooling process (the Mackie process) which considerably reduced internal flaws leading to far fewer broken rails and helped reduce the accident rate.


Discussion with Ms. Susan Bennett of the Church of the Ascension, Echo Drive.
Ottawa Journal, February 17/19/20 and 27, 1908.

Shawville Equity, February 13 1908.

Journal, February 28 1908.
Public Archives RG 46 volume 1427 file 6894.

Bytown Railway Society, Branchline, February 2008.

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