Overcoming: the night the war came to Almonte

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by Lyle Dillabough

Seventy years later, Ed Muldoon is still seeking closure. He is one of the few known remaining survivors of the Almonte train wreck of 1942, one of the worst railway disasters in Canadian history. After all this time the events of that night remain clear in his memory and now, at the age of 85, he wants to settle them. He wants to put the ghosts and memories to bed.

Ed Muldoon stands at the spot where the coach he was trapped in came to rest. photo: © Jerry Flynn 2012

On the evening of December 27 1942 a train carrying troops from  Camp Petawawa plowed into the back of a regularly-scheduled local passenger train at the station in Almonte (about where the library is now.) Thirty-nine people were killed and over a hundred injured. Some have referred to the event ever since as “the night the war came to Almonte” due to the terrible carnage that occurred.

There were many reasons this tragedy occurred and much blame has been dispensed over the years. In the end it was a combination of weather conditions, neglect, mismanagement and human error. One train was moving too slow and the other was moving too fast.

Almonte train wreck, photographed by Wilma Munro. Note the Town Hall at upper right.

There was no one on duty at Pakenham (the last potential stop before Almonte Station) to warn the driver of the troop train that the local had passed through only a short time before. There were no warning lights along the tracks at the outskirts of Almonte. The boiler on the engine powering the local was failing. It was the first time that the driver of the troop train had ever piloted a passenger train. There was a whole lot of bad luck that night.

The ramifications at the time and long afterwards were immense. A conductor committed suicide. The driver of the troop train never piloted a steam engine again. There were cover-ups, attempted cover-ups, an official inquiry and lots of denial. “Human error” was given as the the official cause of the accident but most people involved didn’t buy that. “It was not the CPR’s finest hour” said the late Mervin Tosh (who was a survivor of the wreck) in an interview he gave in 2002. He was one of many who believed that the CPR needed to take responsibility for the tragedy and offer an apology as well.

Ed Muldoon doesn’t care much anymore about apologies. He wants to understand why he survived and the girl beside him with the metal rod through her chest didn’t. He wants to know why it took so long to get the dead and the injured out of the smashed-up coaches. He wants to know why officials from the CPR made them sign waiver forms while awaiting transport to hospitals in Ottawa, and why Almonte or the CPR doesn’t have what he describes as a “proper monument” at the site of the crash.

“These people lost their lives”, he said. “They had as much right to life as anyone else and they lost it there. Surely this fact can be recognized and treated with proper respect.” The small monument now at the site doesn’t the bill as far as he is concerned. It was erected a decade ago and it took a lot of work on the part of volunteers. Muldoon envisions something far more elaborate.

Ironically, the tracks running through Almonte were torn up just this year and the trains will not pass by there anymore. Passenger service along the line was discontinued in 1990. Soon the line will be but a memory and eventually forgotten altogether.

But not for Ed Muldoon. For him there is something that still needs to be resolved.  Muldoon has made his home in the US for much of his life but returns to the Ottawa area every year. And then he comes to Almonte, to the same spot he was when the trains collided.

“I just have to keep coming back here”, he says. “I’m drawn here. My cousin and I were going to get on the last coach when we boarded the train at Arnprior but the conductor made us get on the third coach from the rear”, he recalled. “That saved our lives because the two end cars were torn to pieces.” The engine of the troop train came to rest just mere inches from where he was trapped along the floor.

“I can still see the big light at the front of the engine and recall wondering at the time how it remained lit and unbroken”, he recalled. “It was the only light there was and all around me were the dead and injured. When they finally pulled me out and I could see outside what had happened I couldn’t believe it.”

Ed Muldoon was only 15 years-old the night he survived the Almonte train wreck. He went on to live a full life but a part of him was lost that night too. What it would take to fill that gap likely he himself doesn’t know.

Maybe it just can’t be filled. But for him the events of that night 70 years ago live on and on, as if he carries those who perished within him.