Among the survivors of the train wreck at the Almonte station on the night of 27th December, 1942 was a young man from Renfrew named Mac Crozier. Although 58 years have passed since that night’s tragic incident, in Renfrew, Mac remembers the occasion vividly, and in a special way entirely.
Those familiar with long-established family names in the communities of the Ottawa Valley can immediately associate the name Crozier with the hamlet of Castleford. There was a CPR way station at Castleford, a country store with a gas pump, and a creek to carry off the spring run-off. The Ottawa Valley line of the CPR from the west crossed the Ottawa River parkway there on the way to Sand Point, Braeside and Arnprior. Castleford had scant evidence of ever becoming a bustling centre, but in rejoiced in its way station, country store and creek.
In 1942 at Castleford there was – and it remains so to this day – evidence of a long-standing attachment of the Crozier family to that part of the Valley countryside. Though the station building remains, today’s travellers locate the place a country six miles above Sand Point on the Ottawa Valley parkway that follows alongside the Ottawa River from Braeside to the Champlain Lookout.Mac Crozier’s home, where his parents lived, and where he lives today, is on Raglan Street in Renfrew, but in 1942 he was working in Toronto, helping Avro build the Anson bomber at Downsview Airport.
Christmas fell on a Friday in 1942. Christmas Eve, with the prospect of Christmas in the Valley lightening his footsteps, Mac had gone down to the Union Station to board the train – destination, Renfrew. Boarding call came, and with a happy throng he walked to the gate, went up the stairs, and trudged along the platform to the Upper Ottawa Valley coach. Up the steps he went, into the coach and took the very first seat.
As he was arranging his coat, gloves and a small parcel in the luggage rack, he noticed that an attractive blond girl was having a difficult struggle getting up the steps because she was almost smothered in parcels.
“I suppose it’s all in the way I’ve been brought up,” he explains what followed. “Being an only child, I’d been brought up to understand that a person should never lose an opportunity to help somebody else who might stand in need of some help. And that girl sure needed help.” Instinct and up-bringing combined: Mac went to lend assistance, taking up many of the parcels, lightening the load, and she then navigated the steps easily.
The girl had accepted his help gladly. But, by this time the holiday crowed had swarmed into the coach and every seat but Mac’s had been taken. His up-bringing came to help again: he invited the blonde girl to use the other half of his seat. She accepted this offer too, with more thanks.
Their time passed pleasantly. One introduction led to another. They watched great sheets of steam go flying past their window, finding the journey along the front of Lake Ontario a pleasure indeed, though moving too swiftly to an end. Enquiries about addresses were exchange, and recorded. The blonde girl and her sister shared an apartment in the west end of Toronto. The Bloor Street carline, thought Mac, would get you within walking distance.
“Are you on your way home for Christmas too?” she asked.
“Yes, to Renfrew. It’ll be a short holiday. I have to be back for work on Monday. And you?” he asked. “Home for Christmas too?”
“Yes, home for Christmas. It is a short holiday. It’s back to work on Monday too.”
At Smiths Falls as the trained slowed down to cross the Rideau Canal bridge, and the blonde girl made ready to change trains for Perth with all her parcels in hand, Mac expressed his pleasure at the time they had enjoyed together, and said that, if she didn’t mind a continuation of it, he’d be looking out for her when the train stopped at Smiths Falls station on the return journey.
“Thank you very much. That would be nice. I’ll look forward to seeing you then,” she replied. “Merry Christmas!”
On Sunday evening, two nights after Christmas, 1942, Mac walked down town to the CPR station in Renfrew. Snow was falling, wet snow. The weather seemed to be having difficulty making up its mind whether it should be rain or snow. As he came towards the platform Mac remembered when he was a child, and saw the water tower in the station yard for the first time. He also noticed the curve in the right of way leading to the station, and, in his childish mind, wondered what might happen if a train happened to be standing in the station and another one came along from the rear, racing past the water tower. It might whack right into the standing train, and wreak a lot of damage, wouldn’t it? Of course, it was a fantasy of childhood, but a fantasy that seemed so real, he couldn’t just shake it off entirely.
The Sunday night special train attracted two groups of passengers in Renfrew: the civil servants, of course, returning to Ottawa, and the others, far less numerous, who would be going on to Brockville, Kingston, Oshawa, and Toronto. The first group, for Ottawa, got aboard and went to the left. The others, Toronto passengers largely, went to the right, and their car, directly behind the engine, would be detached at Carleton Place, and hooked up with the train waiting there to go to Toronto.
When the Sunday Night Special of December 27th came to a stop in Renfrew station, Mac went up the steps and turned right.
At Almonte, snow and rain were still disputing which should have the stronger choice, and passengers hurried along the platform and climbed aboard. Finally, the conductor appeared on the platform between the two front cars, pulled the signal cord to alert the engineer to make ready to go ahead, waited a moment before pulling the cord for the second signal, looking at his watch, intently..
Everything in the luggage racks around Mac Crozier came tumbling down. Lights went out. Water spilled out and covered the floor. Windows shattered. A great gap opened in the train behind where the conductor had stood a moment before. The engine of the Sunday Night Special, baggage car and the first coach had taken a terrific slam. The train split in two, and Mac’s part was a hundred yards away from the station. The other half of the Sunday Night Special lay behind. It was a shambles.
“I think it was around 11:00 p.m. when another train came, and we were able to continue on to Carleton Place, and the rest of the way to Toronto.” Mac recalls. He arrived in the Queen City early Monday morning. Newspapers carried shocking banner headlines about a Sunday evening train on the CPR’s Ottawa Valley Line, at the town of Almonte. Casualties were numerous: one paper called it “one of the worst accidents in railway history in Canada.” Columns of names of the deceased and injured filled the front pages. Pictures of the locomotive of a troop train showed it had plowed into the rear coaches of the Sunday Night Special.
All that journey, the overnight trip to Toronto, Mac Crozier wrestled with a problem. He had promised to be looking for Miss Pennett at Smiths Falls on the return trip, and he had been unavoidably prevented from completing that promise. It seemed to him only elementary courtesy to want to calm any distress that she might be suffering, wondering why he hadn’t looked out for her at Smiths Falls for the return journey. On the other hand, thought Mac, if she happened to have the newspaper delivered to the door, she might be wondering whether he had been killed, or injured beyond repair. Though it was early in Toronto, he took the street car up Yonge to Bloor, transferred to the other line, and walked from the carline to the address he had jotted down three days before. He knocked on the front door and waited. A girl came to answer the knock.
“Excuse me,” he said, “Would Miss Pennett be in?”
“Yes, she is, but just who are you?”
“Mac Crozier,” the girl shouted. “You can’t be! My sister says you’re supposed to be dead. We’ve been looking for your name in the list of people killed in that awful train wreck. You’re supposed to be dead!”
A year later Mac and the attractive blonde Miss Pennett from Perth were married. And three years after the Almonte train wreck war ended the need for Ansons and the builders were laid off. Mac and his family eventually returned to Renfrew, to the house of his family. In Renfrew he spent many happy years working for the Post Office department.
He remembers the night of the Almonte train wreck most vividly, and its sequel on the Monday morning following at the doorway of an apartment in west-end Toronto, when he brought news that one of the passengers on the Sunday Night Special had survived. It has remained with him a special memory, carrying as it does the feeling that the finger of Providence has its own ways of keeping in touch with special people from the Valley.
October 31, 2000