Details of Railway Accidents in the Ottawa Area

1909, August 16 - Grand Trunk mixed train derails at Carson Lake after a cloudburst.
The fireman was killed.

Ottawa Citizen 17 August 1909

Wreck on G.T.R
A mixed train going west derailed a short distance from Barry's Bay at 9.15 last night. W.J. Thurston, fireman, Madawasgar, [sic] is missing. It is surmised he is killed.

Ottawa Citizen 18 August 1909

Cloudburst Causes Washout at Barry's Bay.

A mixed G.T.R. train going West on Monday night run into a washout near Barry's Bay at 9.15 o'clock. The engine, tender and four cars loaded with merchandise and two empties left the track, and rolled down an embankement near the lake. The passenger cars did not leave the rails. All escaped unhurt but the fireman. W.J. Thurston of Madawaska. For some time he could not be found but at Iast was found under a car, crushed to death. He was 20 years of age, and a brother of William Thurston, a G.T.R. operator at Alexandria. The latter has been notified and left for the scene of the accident.
The washout was due to a cloud burst which wrought havoc to crops, and railway lines in that district. It washed away the ballast along the G.T.R. line at different points. It was one of the heaviest rains in many years in that district. However the main line has been repaired and the trains are running as usual.

Ottawa Journal 18 August 1909


W.J.Thurston, 20 years of age, a fireman on the G.T.R., was killed in a washout accident at Barry's Bay, Monday night at 9.15 o'clock. The wash-out was due to a cloud burst, which had a damaging effect upon the crops and railroads for miles about.
Thurston was firing on a mixed train going west. The engine, tender, four cars loaded and two empties, left the track and rolled over a steep embankment many feet high. Thurston lived at Madawaska, and was a brother of Wm. Thurston, train operator at Alexandria.

Ottawa Journal 19 August 1909

Passed Over Scene of Barry's Bay Fatality an Hour Previous

A number of Ottawa railway men employed on the Grand Trunk consider themselves very fortunate in escaping the wreck at Barry's Bay. Monday night, caused by a cloudburst and in which W.J. Thurston, of Madawaska, was killed. Just an hour before the accident occurred the Ottawa bound train passed over the spot where the fatal accident occurred. The Ottawa train escaped the violent storm, which caused the washout, and the wreck. When the crew of the Ottawa bound train heard the news of the fatality they considered themselves most fortunate, although deeply grieved at the death of a fellow employee.

Almonte Gazette 20 August 1909

A mixed G.T.R. train going west on Monday night ran into a washout near Barry's bay. The engine, tender and four cars loaded with merchandise and two empties left the track, and rolled down an embankment near the lake. The passenger cars did not leave the rails. All escaped unhurt but the fireman, W.J. Thurston of Madawaska. He was found under a car, crushed to death. He was 28 [sic] years of age, and a brother of William Thurston, a G.T.R. operator at Alexandria. The washout was due to a cloudburst which wrought havoc to crops, and railway lines in that district.

Renfrew Mercury 20 August 1909

There was a wreck on the Grand Trunk Railway on Monday through an unusual cause - a cloudburst. The accompanying torrent of rain rushing down a steep hillside undermined nearly a mile of track near Carson Lake a few miles beyond Barrys Bay and a mixed train was ditched before any damage was known.  The fireman being killed.  Another train had passed only a short time previously.  The fireman was W.J. Thurston of Madawaska whose fatal injuries resulted from him being crushed under a car.

Eganville Leader 23 August 2023

Carson Lake -- Frank Burchat, a local Barry's Bay man with a unique love of local history, got all choked up last Wednesday just as he was about to unveil a plaque in the middle of nowhere. It was dedicated to a young railroader few people have ever heard of.  It was understandable.
Frank has been coming to Carson Lake since his parents built a cottage there 62 years ago. It's where he built his own retirement home over 20 years ago.
But last Wednesday, he was standing pretty much in the proverbial wilderness and yet there were 25 people happily there with him. He had invited them to a very unique ceremony he had organized on a lonely stretch of the old Ottawa, Arnprior and Parry Sound railroad bed, just north of where he now lives along Carson Lake. They were all there to pay respects to someone who had died there 114 years ago to the day, at exactly 9:15 p.m. Monday, August 16th, 1909.
Mr. Burchat was there to unveil a plaque he paid for himself and that he and his friends were placing in that wilderness to remind anyone with even a passing interest to remember a young 20-year-old man who had been killed on that stretch of shoreline a very long time ago.
It happened, as the Ottawa Citizen explained back in 1909, when a mixed, westbound Grand Trunk Railway train was suddenly derailed after hitting 'a washout' along the tracks.
"The engine, tender and four cars loaded with merchandise and two empties left the track, and rolled down an embankment near the lake," wrote the Citizen. “Luckily, the passenger cars did not leave the rails, and all passengers escaped unhurt. But the engine's fireman, 20-year-old William J. Thurston of Madawaska, could not be found.
"At last, he was found," added the newspaper, "under a car, crushed to death."
Among the 25 people gathered together last Wednesday at the very spot where Mr. Thurston died were eight members of his extended family: Debra Thurston-Prescott, a great niece; Barbara Thurston-Silke, another great niece; Kevin Thurston, a great nephew; Doug Thurston, a nephew, Norma Thurston-Lewis, a niece; Margaret Thurston-Kranz, a niece; Hugh Thurston and Christine Kranz.
Despite William's death that day, three of his brothers would go on to become railroad station agents working throughout eastern Ontario. His younger brother, Albert, would become station agent at Killaloe, Wilno, Barry's Bay and even the Thurston's own hometown of Madawaska. Brother Hugh would end up as station agent in Pembroke.
In fact, William's youngest brother, John, only seven years old when his older brother was killed, would grow up to become station agent in Killaloe and then hold the same job in Barry's Bay from 1958 to about 1965. His daughter, Norma Thurston-Lewis, remembers living upstairs at the old Barry's Bay Station before graduating from the village high school in 1964. 
Yet, most people have forgotten the men and women who made that old 19th and 20th Century railroad work and that once connected Eganville, Golden Lake, Killaloe, Wilno, Barry's Bay, Madawaska and Whitney.
Most have certainly never heard of that deadly accident 114 years ago this month. 
Then, along comes Mr. Burchat. He knew the original 1909 washout was easy to explain. It was due, said the newspaper of the day, "to a cloud burst which wrought havoc to crops and railway lines in the district; it washed away the ballast along the GTR line at different points. It was one of the heaviest rains in many years in the district."
Yet, in only a matter of days, the mess left by that 1909 derailment was cleaned up, the tracks repaired, and life pretty much went back to what passed for normal for most people.
But even before Mr. Burchat retired to the area, that accident was not something he could forget. Nearly 50 years ago, he had heard 'the persistent rumour,' as he called it: That the steam engine and two flat-bed cars that had killed William J. Thurston were still deep down in Carson Lake, having been spotted there in the 1960s or '70s by two reputable German scuba divers, some 85 feet below the surface. 
Mr. Burchat, also a certified scuba diver, decided to go look-see, as did Pat Flynn, another certified diver and one of Mr. Burchat’s Carson Lake neighbours. So too did a number of other area friends who happened to be divers. Over the years, all worked their way down into the surprisingly cold and dark depths of Carson Lake, but they could find nothing.
"It's cold, you can't see your hand in front of your face, yet looking up it is surprisingly clear," said Pat Flynn of the time he went looking into the black water of Carson Lake.
Still, Mr. Burchat was not about to give up. Six years ago, he got others to pitch in including Wendy Wolak, the president of the Carson, Trout, Lepine and Greenan Lake Association. She's also another history buff and so she contacted a well-known railroad historian, Colin Churcher, who uncovered some new facts.
He discovered that on August 16th, 1909, a torrent of rain had come rushing down a steep hillside and had undermined nearly a mile of track near Carson Lake. The mixed train had tried to ditch itself in hopes of avoiding any real damage. Mr. Churcher also found out that another eastbound train had passed less than an hour prior to the accident but saw no washout. Mr. Churcher was doubtful that the steam engine and box cars would have been left in the lake, as they would be too valuable. He suggested that the railroad of the day would certainly have had the technology to retrieve any sunken rolling stock.
Mr. Burchat then stumbled across another derailment less than a mile away. It had occurred January 21st, 1897, and killed three other OA & PS railroad employees. Despite such awful tragedies, there isn't even a 'wreck of the old' whatever song to commemorate either accident.
Still, others continued to step forward and confirm the story of an old steam engine sunk deep below Carson Lake. Wade Parsons, whose parents used to own Pleasure Point Resort near Carson Lake, being one. Then there was Nancy George, who still resides at Carson Lake; she was pretty certain those German scuba divers had brought up some train artifacts, namely a metal teapot and some railroad cutlery.
Dorthey Wilson then stepped forward and said she had located William J. Thurston's tombstone. It was in Madawaska and soon a gaggle of Mr. Burchat’s friends and relatives headed off, along with Mr. Burchat, to not only verify that fact, but, more importantly, to carefully clean up the grave site and tombstone. Others quickly threw in on the hunt, as if they were hell-bent to find the Holy Grail, or that even more mythical treasure on Oak Island, or whatever in tarnation, Mr. Burchat was on about. They included Ted, Cathy and Grant Grzywniak, Brian Moore, Debbie Donaldson, Jakob Kachel and Kris Totosko.
Almost miraculously, next came the OPP's Search and Recovery Unit who were in the area working on another case and decided they could use the mystery of the old train to newly train some of their new scuba team.
Enter OPP Sgt. Michael Coo and Constables Jenny Brown, Matt Duquette and Brian Kielman. They were based in Gravenhurst and though their main area of operation is major crime, weapons recovery and missing persons, somehow, Mr. Burchat bamboozled them into bringing along their Side-Scan Sonar and a Remote Operated Vehicle that can dive to 500 feet, to say little of a drone that was used to fly over much of Carson Lake.
After that, came the Gignac Dive Team -- Wayne Gignac and his daughter, Samantha, who are both advanced dive instructors. They too slipped into the cold Carson Lake water, recorded at 4C at 140 feet. At 100 feet. scuba divers are limited to only 20 minutes due to blood nitrogen level issues that can lead to 'the bends.' They pushed the envelope as best they could, but no luck.
"They didn't find anything either" said Mr. Burchat before finally concluding only last week, "there is no train in the water."
That may be so, but thanks to Frank Burchat’s relentless pursuit, hundreds of people now know the name of William J. Thurston and something of his tragic history. Or as Margaret Thurston-Kranz eloquently put it at the end of last Wednesday’s dignified ceremony smack-dab in the middle of nowhere: "My dad was very family oriented; he would have loved this."
Mr. Burchat may be a lot of things but he's certainly a very good friend of Billy Thurston.
Barry Conway, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader

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Updated 3 May 2024