Diefenbaker and the Canoe River Wreck

In the book Korea: Canada's Forgotten War by John Melady (Macmillan 1983), there is a story about Canadian railroading which I had not read before. Perhaps railway history is slanted towards the corporations because the author needs the co-operation of the companies. In this story, Canadian National is shown in a different light.

On November 21, 1950, at 10:35 in the morning, there was a terrible accident on the Canadian National main line 312 miles west of Edmonton. A 17 car westbound troop tram carrying 340 soldiers crossed a long trestle over a 500-foot mountain gorge. Just east of the hamlet called Canoe River, British Columbia, the troop train entered a long sweeping uphill curve. At the same time, an eastbound transcontinental express banked into the same curve.

In the ensuing crash, the engine of the army train was tossed up and back onto the coaches immediately behind it. The wooden coaches filled with soldiers buckled like cordwood. Twenty-one men died in the wreck including four whose remains were never found. Seventy were injured including many who were hurt by the scalding steam.

On May 9, 1951, a manslaughter trial opened in Prince George, British Columbia. There, a 22-year-old CNR telegrapher named Alfred Atherton was accused of causing the wreck because he had allegedly sent an incomplete message to the westbound train. John Diefenbaker (who went on to be the thirteenth Canadian prime minister) was Atherton's lawyer.

The trial was lively. CN refused to accept any responsibility for the crash and seemed to be using Atherton as a scapegoat. A notable exchange occurred between Diefenbaker and Colonel Pepler, the Deputy Attorney General of British Columbia, who was acting as Crown Attorney.

Diefenbaker: "I suppose the reason you (CN) put these soldiers into wooden cars with steel cars on either end was so no matter what they might subsequently find in Korea, they'd always be able to say, 'Well, we had worse in Canada.'"

Pepler: "I want to make it clear that in this case we're not concerned about the deaths of a few privates going to Korea."

Diefenbaker: "You're not concerned about the killing of a few privates?" Then with icy sarcasm: "Oh, Colonel!"

Diefenbaker won an acquittal after this turning point. The jury also felt that snow on the telegraph wires may have led to the incomplete message.

Somehow it seems even more fitting that John George Diefenbaker went home to his final resting place in Saskatoon by special train.

Bytown Railway Society,  Branchline, September 1996, page 26.

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