Railway accident records at Library and Archives Canada

By Rebecca Murray

In recent years, large-scale railway derailments and collisions have caught our attention and have become questions of public safety, but this is not a new chapter in Canadian transportation history. Rail accidents dot the history of railways in Canada and have shaped the lives of many Canadians.

A black and white photograph of a partially derailed train in a train yard. Snow covers the ground and a city can be seen in the background.

Cars off track at Strachan Avenue, Toronto, December 19, 1916. Photograph taken by John Boyd (MIKAN 3364261)

Have you witnessed a railway accident? Was a family member or friend involved in a railway accident? Do you have an interest in railway history in a specific region or for a specific railway company? These are just some of the many reasons that researchers consult Library and Archives Canada’s (LAC) Reference Services regarding railway accident records.

Starting your railway accident research

First, gather as much information as you can about the rail accident prior to contacting or visiting LAC. The exact date and location are extremely important, as are details such as individuals involved and if possible, type of accident (e.g. public crossing, derailment, crash). If you are missing some of these details, consult newspapers on microfilm or online before undertaking your search with LAC’s online tools. Accident records are usually organized chronologically by date, so the date is key for you to start your research with the correct institution.

LAC holds rail accident records for investigations that began in 1990 or earlier, whereas the Transportation Safety Board maintains an online database for investigations from 1991 to the present.

Records at LAC

Railway accident records can be found in various series of the Canadian Transport Commission fonds (RG46) depending on the time period and type of accident.

I suggest relying on the following search strategies and finding aids to begin your research:

Finding Aid # Format Time Period How to Use the Finding Aid
46-21 Archives Search 1838–1987 In the first box, click on the down arrow and select Finding aid number. In the box to the right, type 46-21. In the second row of boxes, the default is Any keyword. Type in accident in the box to its right. Press Enter. In the results list, you can use the right menu to sort all results by date, or you can limit your results to a specific decade.
46-10 Online Finding Aid 46-10 1904–1949, 1964–1972 The finding aid is arranged alphabetically and then chronologically by railway company. Each report varies in content, but often references accidents.
46-55 Online Finding Aid 46-55 1900–1992 Accidents at public crossings arranged alphabetically by geographic subdivision
46-58 Online Finding Aid 46-58 1982–1983 Chronological
46-59 Online Finding Aid 46-59 1984 Chronological

There are also additional resources online and onsite at Library and Archives Canada, 395 Wellington St., Ottawa. You can use Archives Search to do general keyword searches with terms like “rail” AND “accident” (or “derailment” or “collision”) and use the right menu to sort all results by date, or you can limit your results to a specific decade.

If you follow the steps described above and still can’t find what you’re looking for, don’t despair! Reference Services staff are always just a call or click away. You are also welcome to visit in person. No matter how you contact us, we are happy to help researchers with their questions.


Rebecca Murray is a reference archivist in the Reference Services Division of Library and Archives Canada.

Railway sleeping car porters

By Dalton Campbell

Railway sleeping cars were introduced to Canada in the 1870s by the Pullman Palace Car Company. Pullman built and operated luxury passenger rail cars equipped with seating areas that converted into bunk beds; the seats were converted into the lower berth and the upper berth was pulled down from the ceiling. Pullman cars were known for their accommodations, comfort, and the service provided by the porters.

A black-and-white photograph of three men posing beside a railway car. A chef stands on the steps leading into the train, another man holds the handrail and the third, a porter, stands to the side beside the train.

A porter with two other employees at a stop during the tour of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle across Canada, 1914 (MIKAN 3587745)

A black-and-white photograph of a woman, in profile, lying under the blankets in the lower bunk reading a newspaper.

In the evenings, the porters would make up the beds. One of the seats was extended to create the comfortable lower bunk. While the passengers slept, the porters continued to work until after midnight. The porters could nap if there were no calls or emergencies during the night, but were awake to begin their workday before dawn, 1937 (MIKAN 3353752)

A black-and-white photograph of people seated in a railway sleeping car, looking out the windows.

While the passengers were at breakfast, the porters would convert the berths back into seating. The upper berth would be stowed into the panels above the passenger seats, 1929 (MIKAN 3350533)

The railways were one of the few Canadian companies to hire black men in the early 20th century. It was an opportunity that appealed to many men. There were limitations, however. The railways hired black men solely to be porters, and from the First World War until the 1950s, did not hire or promote black men to the post of engineer, conductor, or any other job on the train.

The porters served the passengers during their trip; they would help with boarding and disembarking, serve drinks and snacks, set up berths, make beds, polish shoes, tend to and entertain small children, and cater to the customers’ needs and wants. The porters were essential to rail travel—they were always present but also pushed to the background.

A black-and-white photograph of people in a train station. A porter, with luggage on a dolly, is facing away from the camera. Two well-dressed travellers are speaking to a ticket agent. An information board with destinations is on the wall behind the travellers announcing the train as “The Dominion” from Montréal to Vancouver. A passenger train is visible in the background.

A porter takes luggage for passengers about to board “The Dominion” at Windsor Station, Montréal, Quebec, circa 1947 (MIKAN 3613396)

The men received regular wages, had the opportunity to see Canada and meet travellers. Stanley Grizzle, a former sleeping car porter, states in his autobiography that porters were admired within the black community.

These benefits and rewards came at a cost. Porters worked long hours, often on call for 24 hours with their sleeping accommodations on the train in the men’s smoking room. They were frequently away from home for days at a time. They were also wary of passenger complaints and were often subject to harsh discipline from management. Porters would risk reprisals from passengers when they reported gambling, excessive drinking, or illegal activities.

The porters received demeaning and insulting comments and names from passengers. Stanley Grizzle wrote that passengers would frequently address porters as “George” after George Pullman, the original owner of the Pullman Car Company. The porters were also forced to rely on tips from passengers. While the money was welcome, Stanley Grizzle writes, the act of asking for a tip was demeaning, reinforced subservience, and allowed the company to justify keeping wages low because of the tips.

A black-and-white photograph of a crowd of people with baggage standing on the platform next to a passenger train. Two porters are seen beside the train. One is on the platform attending to some luggage; the other stands in the doorway of the train. An automobile in the foreground has a sign on the door reading “Jasper Park Lodge.” Mountains are visible in the distance.

Two porters assist passengers and other crew at the railway station in Jasper, Alberta, 1929 (MIKAN 3199681)

The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was organized in Canada during the Second World War. The union helped to negotiate higher wages, better working (and sleeping) conditions, fairer and more transparent disciplinary measures, and ended racial discrimination in hiring and promotions. Beginning in the 1960s with changes in the travel industry, the railways were employing fewer and fewer sleeping car porters. In 1999, Heritage Canada unveiled a plaque at Windsor Station, Montréal, Quebec, to honour the sleeping car porters.

Related resources


Dalton Campbell is an archivist in the Science, Environment and Economy Section of the Private Archives Division.

Photo Album 47: Record of a real and a constructed journey to western Canada: a mystery!

In the previous posts, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Tour of Western Canada, June 1914 and Visit to Jasper National Park, we followed on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s trail as he travelled through Canada in 1914. The images of the trip came from a large album of photographic prints put together by William Topley capturing the author’s travels—supposedly. Upon doing further research, there are some curiosities with the way the album has been presented.

The photo album (see pages from the album below) appears to be not only a record of the Conan Doyle tour of 1914, but also a constructed record of a journey that an immigrant or tourist would take on the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway.

A black-and-white photograph showing a group of people sitting on a veranda overlooking a wooded area.

The Conan Doyle party sitting on a veranda. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is on the far right.

Clues

First, the original nitrate and glass plate negatives are located in the Topley fonds rather than the Department of the Interior, which employed the photographer for the Conan Doyle tour.

Second, the photo album resides within the Department of the Interior’s fonds in a series entitled, Immigration Branch — Photographic Albums of Canadian Settlement. The MIKAN record notes that the albums in this series contain photographs taken by two photographers, John Woodruff and Horatio Topley, working for the William Topley Studio. However, the photographs in the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle album are clearly identified as having been taken by William Topley, rather than his brother, who died in 1910.

Third, while the MIKAN record—Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Tour—suggests that the entire album is of Conan Doyle’s tour, a close inspection of the physical album reveals that only a portion of the photographs are from the tour! The last part of the album has photos of places along the remainder of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway route from Jasper, Alberta through central northern British Columbia to Prince Rupert on the Pacific coast—places which Conan Doyle did not visit as he returned east after his stay in Jasper National Park.

So why are these other photos in the album? By looking at the finding aid for the Topley Studio Series SC, we learn that Topley may have travelled on the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway to photograph the Mount Robson Glacier and Berg Lake in 1913. In July 1915, he may have taken the railway from Jasper, Alberta all the way to Prince Rupert, British Columbia. Along the way, he photographed:

Photograph of a typewritten list with photograph numbers and titles of locations along the Grand Trunk Railway.

The finding aid at the beginning of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle photo album from the Immigration Branch listing the photographs contained in the album.

Topley was quite probably employed by Department of the Interior to record these trips as he had a number of prominent assignments with the Department in the first two decades of the 20th century.

In 1917, the Department of the Interior published the book, Description of and Guide to Jasper Park, which includes several of Topley’s photos from his 1914 trip with Conan Doyle and one photo of his 1915 trip.

A photograph of an album, showing three black-and-white photographs of a city.

A page taken from the album showing photographs of the city of Edmonton.

A photograph of a photo album, showing four black-and-white photographs of groups of people with horses and tents.

A page from the album showing photographs taken of a press excursion at Jasper Park that are clearly labelled 1915.

A photograph of an album, showing four black-and-white photographs of various scenes in British Columbia, including the totem poles at Kitwanga, a view of the village, an unidentified medicine man and a person fishing on a stream.

The album showing locations in British Columbia that Conan Doyle did not go to during this trip.

A collage of two images. The first one is a label explaining how to reorder the binder if necessary, and the second one shows two black-and-white photographs: one of an Ottawa bridge and the other captioned, “Str. Prince Rupert leaving for Vancouver.”

First and last pages of the album. The last photograph shows a steamer heading towards Vancouver. However the Conan Doyle party never made it past Mount Robson.

Whether the Department of the Interior album was intended for public viewing or not, one thing is certain—Topley’s western excursions were addictive. The photographer was drawn to the grand western landscapes. Retired Library and Archives Canada photo archivist and Topley expert Andrew Rodger writes in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography: “Topley and his wife, who died in 1927, spent much of their last years in Edmonton with their daughter, Helena Sarah, and son-in-law, Robert C.W. Lett, an employee of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway. The latter was probably influential in the naming of the town of Topley, a community on the rail line in northern British Columbia.

William Topley died in Vancouver in 1930.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Tour of Western Canada – Visit to Jasper National Park

On June 11, 1914, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his wife travelled via the Grand Trunk Pacific railway to the town of Jasper within Alberta’s Jasper National Park. Of the place, the author later wrote:

“Jasper Park is one of the great national playgrounds and health resorts which the Canadian Government with great wisdom has laid out for the benefit of the citizens. When Canada has filled up and carries a large population, she will bless the foresight of the administrators who took possession of broad tracts of the most picturesque land and put them forever out of the power of the speculative dealer.”

This statement proved to be pure gold for government travel marketers! During Conan Doyle’s visit, the commissioner for Canada’s national parks, J.B. Harkin, created his own promotional campaign for national parks, releasing the booklet entitled “Just a Sprig of Mountain Heather.”

The Jasper Park trip lasted eight days. Conan Doyle was the guest of an old friend, Colonel Rogers, who was the park’s superintendent. The author noted: “For a week we lived the life of simplicity and nature.”

A black-and-white photograph showing a veranda with seating to take advantage of the view. The architectural style is rustic, with river stones and rough-hewn beams.

The veranda of the Administration Building in Jasper Park, Alberta, by William Topley, 1914 (MIKAN 3587685)

Conan Doyle wrote of his experience in the town of Jasper as follows: “Life in Jasper interested me as an experience of the first stage of a raw Canadian town. It will certainly grow into a considerable place, but at that time, bar Colonel Rogers’ house and the station, there were only log-huts and small wooden dwellings.” He and his wife visited many now-famous locations, such as Pyramid Lake, Lake Edith, and the Maligne River and Canyon.

A black-and-white photograph showing a man and a woman with a horse by a lake. The man is seated and the woman is holding the lead to the horse. There are tall coniferous trees behind them.

A couple with a horse at Pyramid Lake, Alberta, by William Topley, 1914 (MIKAN 3587697)

A black-and-white photograph of a group of people outside a rustic log cabin.

The Conan Doyle party preparing lunch outside (MIKAN 3587725)

A black-and-white photograph showing one person walking and five people on horseback, on a log bridge crossing a river, with mountains in the background.

The Conan Doyle party crossing the Athabasca River in Alberta (MIKAN 3303264)

A special train was organized to take Conan Doyle, his wife, and friends to visit the area near Mount Robson. The mountain, located just over the Alberta border in British Columbia, is one of the highest and most iconic mountains in the Canadian Rockies. William Topley, the celebrated Ottawa photographer, dutifully took these photos.

A black-and-white photograph showing a train stopped beside a river.

The train near Lucerne, British Columbia, by William Topley, 1914 (MIKAN 3587749)

A black-and-white photograph showing a man walking along train tracks, with a view of Mount Robson in the distance.A black-and-white photograph showing a man walking along train tracks, with a view of Mount Robson in the distance.

A man walking along the railway tracks, with a view of Mount Robson in the background, by William Topley, 1914 (MIKAN 3587770)

Today, a century later, the landscape looks much the same. Mount Robson is notoriously difficult to photograph without clouds obscuring its peak, so Topley was extremely lucky to get such clear shots. After this excursion, Conan Doyle would survey the layout for the first golf course in Jasper (as noted in the 1914 edition of “Golf Illustrated”) and take part in a baseball game between teams from the towns of Jasper and Edson, making sure to pitch the first ball! Although Topley missed capturing the moment, another local photographer was lucky enough to get this shot.

Conan Doyle’s Return Journey East

We do not have any images of the return trip back East, perhaps because the point of the expedition was to promote the Canadian West and its newly minted national park. We do know that the couple left Jasper on June 19 and that the return journey meandered through Winnipeg, along the north shore of Lake Superior, through Algonquin Park, down to Niagara Falls, and finally back to Ottawa for Dominion Day (Canada Day). They headed back to England on July 4. The visit resonated deeply with them as they would take their children to Jasper Park in the 1920s.

The First World War would begin one month later, giving Conan Doyle’s daydream poem The Athabasca Trail an even greater poignancy.

In the last article in this Blog series, we will take a closer look at the photo album associated with Conan Doyle’s trip, and explore some of the mysteries surrounding the images it contains. Why, for example, are there photos of places in British Columbia that Conan Doyle never visited?

Early 20th century railway images now on Flickr

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) preserves a unique collection of railway materials dating from the 1880s to the 1950s. A portion of the collection showcases photographs of railway hotels, stations, trains and travel across the country.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Tour of Western Canada, June 1914

Imagine if the Canadian government invited a famous British writer to travel across Canada by train and stay at one of the country’s newest national parks—all at the expense of taxpayers! Think this scenario is impossible? Well, it happened a little over a century ago. In the spring of 1914, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (of Sherlock Holmes fame) was invited to travel on the newly opened Grand Trunk Pacific Railway from Montreal to Jasper National Park. Conan Doyle accepted the invitation, and he and his wife, Jean Leckie, conducted the trip between May and July, 1914. The official photographer for the journey was none other than the celebrated William James Topley—a real public relations coup! Topley’s son-in-law, R.C.W. Lett, held a prominent position with the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, and persuaded him to photograph Conan Doyle’s travels.

Montreal to Winnipeg

Conan Doyle’s trip to Jasper by train was, as it is today, a quintessential Canadian travel adventure. Writing about the experience later in Memories and Adventures, Conan Doyle stated:

“…We accepted an invitation from the Canadian Government to inspect the National Reserve at Jasper Park in the Northern Rockies. The Grand Trunk Railway (Canadian) made matters easy for us by generously undertaking to pass us over their system and to place a private car at our disposal. This proved to be a gloriously comfortable and compact little home consisting of a parlour, a dining-room and a bedroom. It belonged to Mr. Chamberlin, the president of the line, who allowed us the use of it. Full of anticipation we started off in May upon our long and pleasant journey.”

Thus the celebrated author set out with his wife by ship from England to New York City in late May 1914, and travelled by train to Montreal, arriving in the city on June 3, 1914.

A black-and-white postcard featuring three photographs of the sights around the train station in Montreal.

A postcard published by the Albertype Company, showing three views: Grand Trunk Railway Station, Grand Trunk Railway Offices and Place Viger C.P.R. Hotel and Station (MIKAN 3335217)

Conan Doyle visited the sights of the city and went on a side trip to Trois-Rivières. The author then spoke to the Montreal branch of the Canadian Club on The Future of Canadian Literature. This same speech would be repeated in Winnipeg, Edmonton and Ottawa. Between June 5 and 8, Conan Doyle travelled from Montreal to Winnipeg by train and by boat. First, by train to Sarnia, Ontario, then on the S.S. Harmonic steamship to Fort William (near Thunder Bay). Of this part of the trip, he observed: “Then comes the enormous stretch of the Great Lakes, those wonderful inland seas, with great oceangoing steamers.”

Of Northwest Ontario, he noted: “The true division between the East and West of Canada is not the Great Lakes, which are so valuable as a waterway, but lies in the 500 miles of country between the Lakes and Winnipeg.” They stayed one night at the Minaki Lodge near Sioux Lookout, arriving in Winnipeg, Manitoba, late on June 8.

A black-and-white photograph showing the entrance to an imposing building. Automobiles and horse-drawn buggies are lined outside, and people are standing near the entrance.

The entrance of the Grand Trunk Pacific and Canadian National Railway Station in Winnipeg, by William Topley, 1914 (MIKAN 3587592)

A black-and-white photograph showing a wide street, busy with streetcars, automobiles, horse-drawn buggies, cyclists and pedestrians. The buildings along the street look new and prosperous.

The Eaton’s store on Portage Avenue, in Winnipeg, by William Topley, 1914 (MIKAN 3587605)

These images are superb at documenting the bustling prairie city. The stop in Winnipeg was not long, but Conan Doyle remarked: “I do not suppose the average Briton has the least conception of the amenities of Winnipeg. He would probably be surprised to hear that the Fort Garry Hotel there is nearly as modern and luxurious as any hotel in Northumberland.”

From Winnipeg to Edmonton

By June 9, Conan Doyle was in Edmonton, having crossed the Prairies.

A black-and-white photograph of a train station taken from the other side of the tracks. There is a sign with the word Biggar, and there’s a note at the bottom of the photograph identifying it as G.T.P. Station, Biggar, Sask.

The Grand Trunk Pacific Railway Station, Biggar, Saskatchewan (MIKAN 3393480)

And he would have crossed over the high-level bridge entering Edmonton.

A black-and-white photograph showing a high-level railway bridge spanning a river.

The high-level bridge in Edmonton, by William Topley, 1914 (MIKAN 3587671)

The couple stayed in Edmonton for two days. Here, Conan Doyle noticed the rough-hewn nature of the city, comparing it to Winnipeg: “There were no such luxuries in 1914 in Edmonton. The town was in a strangely half-formed condition, rude and raw, but with a great atmosphere of energy, bustle, and future greatness. With its railway connections and waterways it is bound to be a large city.”

A black-and-white photograph taken from a hillside overlooking a town, showing cyclists resting on the grass and other men seated nearby.

The town of Edmonton from “Summer House,” by William Topley, 1914 (MIKAN 3587646)

A black-and-white photograph showing a wide avenue, roughly paved, where streetcars, horse-drawn carriages and automobiles share the road. It is a streetscape bustling with activity.

Edmonton—a street view of this frontier town, by William Topley, 1914 (MIKAN 3587667)

The two prairie cities, Winnipeg and Edmonton, contrasted greatly with the breathtaking mountain scenery of Jasper National Park. In the next Blog, we will look at Conan Doyle’s extended stay at Jasper, a place that inspired him to write a poem of some importance…