Toronto’s Christmas Time Train Incident: A Tragedy for the Engineer, a Blessing for Passengers

By Alicia Bertrand, M.A.

In December 1906, dozens of Torontonians were out on trains and streetcars getting their last-minute Christmas shopping done, or travelling for the holiday to visit friends and family. On December 22, 1906, passengers of the express Canadian Pacific Railway (C.P.R) train from Toronto to Hamilton, and passengers on the other trains crossing the railways’ path, were unaware of the horrific catastrophe that could have occurred, had it not been for the quick thinking of one man, James Albert Bertrand.

On December 22, 1906, 47-year-old John Paul, C.P.R engineer, woke up and went to work like any other day. He could have never imagined that it would be his last. Not only that, but no one could have foreseen such a gruesome and accidental way to die when in a large engine such as Engine No. 220. That day, Paul worked the Toronto-Hamilton Express train from Union Station with conductor Wilmot Wilson, and fireman James Bertrand.[1] It was packed with Christmas week shoppers, visitors, and travellers.

At 4pmEST that day, the train left Union Station, and very soon after, as the train passed John St., Paul stuck his head out the engine window.[2] His head was struck by a semaphore arm (or arch according to a witness).[3] He was killed instantly. The semaphore had struck his head at such speed that part of his skull behind the ear was worn away and his brain was exposed.

Figure 1 John Paul. Photo from Toronto Daily Star (1900-1971); Toronto, Ontario [Toronto, Ontario]. 24 Dec 1906: 1.
Figure 1 John Paul. Photo from Toronto Daily Star (1900-1971); Toronto, Ontario [Toronto, Ontario]. 24 Dec 1906: 1.

Fireman Bertrand tended to his duties and did not know the incident had occurred. When the train passed by Parkdale station, he thought that Paul had been told before they left Union Station to not stop there. However, once the train flew by Sunnyside station without a whistle blown or stop, that is when he knew something must be wrong. Bertrand walked up and opened the engineers’ box, and what must have been a horrific scene for the 33-year-old man was in front of him. An almost decapitated Paul, with his hand still clasped around the throttle.[4] He quickly shut off the steam (power to the engine) and applied the brake. The train came to a stop at Mimico station.

Figure 2 Map of Toronto & Suburbs Shewing the Location of the Toronto Belt Line Railway. Published by Alexander & Cable, Toronto.
Figure 2 Map of Toronto & Suburbs Shewing the Location of the Toronto Belt Line Railway. Published by Alexander & Cable, Toronto.

The Toronto Daily Star reported that it was incredibly lucky for the train to pass Bathurst St. and to not collide with another train, since nine out of ten times the engineers have to stop there to allow the north and west trains to pass. Accounts claimed that the train was minutes away from colliding with the Stratford train.[5] Both trains carried hundreds of Christmas travellers and shoppers. A crash between them would have been a horrific event in Toronto’s history. However, where many were saved from a horrible train crash, the Paul family had lost their husband and father.  

On December 26, 1906, Paul’s funeral was held at his home in 47 Mulock Ave., and his body buried in Prospect Cemetery.[6]

Figure 3 John Paul and family, Headstone in Prospect Cemetery, Toronto
Figure 3 John Paul and family, Headstone in Prospect Cemetery, Toronto

An inquest into the death of John Paul was conducted. Fireman Bertrand and conductor Wilmot Wilson were questioned. It was argued that Bertrand should have realized something was wrong when the train passed Parkdale. He told the investigators that he believed Paul was simply told not to stop at Parkdale, but that upon passing the very busy Sunnyside station with no whistles, that was when he knew something was wrong and took action.[7] Therefore, no fault was placed on Bertrand.

Whether Bertrand reacted quickly enough or not when he was unaware of the unusual circumstances that had occurred on the train that day, he was responsible for saving the lives of those on the express train, and the trains that could have collided with it without his actions. Panic and shock can cause any person to not act quickly. However, I am biased, as James Bertrand is my great-grandfather. My great-grandmother and grandfather kept one of the Toronto Daily Star newspaper columns about Paul’s death.

The investigation did place blame on the C.P.R. Company, and the Union Station Company, due to the placement of the semaphore too close to the train tracks in cases where the larger engines were used. As well as the Union Station Company’s negligence regarding the upkeep of the semaphore at the end of John St.[8]

On a more somber note, the Paul family was devastated again when on October 4, 1909, John Paul’s 22-year-old son, Joseph Paul, while working on the C.P.R. rail between Orangeville and Toronto Junction, was crushed between two train cars.[9] Then in 1916, Paul’s 26-year-old son, John Harley Paul, was killed in action in Somme, France during World War One.[10] Jessie Agnes Paul, John’s wife, had to live through all of these events and watch members of her family taken from her. She lived to be 105-years-old.[11]

Toronto’s history is filled with interesting micro stories that most people will never read about. Reading the story of one man’s tragedy and the train passengers’ blissful ignorance of the horrific events that occurred makes the reader think about the importance of micro-histories. Micro-histories can humanize the events of the past for the modern reader. The death of John Paul in December 1906 was a horrible incident. The history of workplace deaths is a somber reminder that Canadians have been, and continue to be, injured or killed in the workplace. Labour standards have improved since 1906, but accidents still happen. Thankfully, for the passengers of Engine No. 220 that day, my great-grandfather Bertrand stopped the train. Railway safety standards have also improved since 1906, and this holiday season, Canadian railway passengers should have safe travels.  

Figure 4 James Bertrand and CPR Engine 1746, date unknown, copyright Alicia Bertrand.
Figure 4 James Bertrand and CPR Engine 1746, date unknown, copyright Alicia Bertrand.
Figure 5 James Albert Bertrand, date unknown, copyright Alicia Bertrand.
Figure 5 James Albert Bertrand, date unknown, copyright Alicia Bertrand.

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Footnotes:

[1] A train fireman was the train crewman who shoveled coal into the fire box and tended the boiler on an old-fashioned steam locomotive. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fireman_(steam_engine)&gt;

[2] Witness Fred Thompson said he saw Paul look back towards the end of the train. One newspaper account of the incident said that he stuck his head out to possibly see if steam was escaping the exhaust pipe. Toronto Daily Star (1900-1971); Toronto, Ontario [Toronto, Ontario]. 24 Dec 1906: 8; Toronto Daily Star (1900-1971); Toronto, Ontario [Toronto, Ontario]. 27 Dec 1906: 2.

[3] Thompson said arch. The newspapers said arm or simply “semaphore”. They look like the sign posts with arms that move up and down next to modern rail tracks.

[4] Toronto Daily Star (1900-1971); Toronto, Ontario [Toronto, Ontario]. 24 Dec 1906: 8. 

[5] Ibid.

[6] Technically, he was put into a vault until the next Spring thaw for burial, he was officially buried on May 7, 1907. Toronto Trust Cemeteries; Toronto, Canada; Cemetery: Prospect Cemetery; Volume: 01; Year Range: 1890-1914; Toronto Daily Star (1900-1971); Toronto, Ontario [Toronto, Ontario]. 26 Dec 1906: 3; https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/184914478/john-arthur-paul

[7] Toronto Daily Star (1900-1971); Toronto, Ontario [Toronto, Ontario]. 27 Dec 1906: 2.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Archives of Ontario; Toronto, Ontario, Canada; Collection: MS935; Reel: 143

[10] https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/56578273/john-harley-paul

[11] https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/184914488/jessie-agnes-paul\

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Published by AncestryByAlicia

After obtaining my Master of Arts degree in History, and working on my genealogy for over 13 years, I decided to write about interesting historical matters from not only my family, but other interesting tidbits as well. I also research and present free walking tours in my city, including "Haunted Oshawa" and "Murder and Mayhem in Oshawa." I am currently writing two books. One is a historical account of small-town murders in Ontario. The other is a historical novel about the Royal African Company's James Fort on the Gambia River, 1715-1740.

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