It was one of the most bizarre rail accidents in Montreal’s history and also one of the least auspicious. Bizarre, because the rails were laid not on terra firma but on ice across the frozen St. Lawrence. And inauspicious, because the accident came on the very first day of operations that winter.
The Victoria Bridge was an undeniably magnificent response to the formidable, mile-wide barrier of the river at Montreal. Its opening in late 1859 gave shippers in the city easy rail access to the Atlantic, at Portland, Me. It almost seemed a miracle. Freight and passengers could now move between tidewater and the American midwest through central Canada even when the ice of winter shut deep-sea ships out of Montreal’s harbour for months at a stretch.
But the bridge was also a barrier in its own right. It was owned by the Grand Trunk Railway, and though other lines could use it, they had to pay for the privilege. Even then, their timetables had to cede priority to the Grand Trunk’s. Was there a way out of the dilemma, short of building a new rail bridge?
In winter, at least, there might be. For generations, Montrealers had been accustomed to laying out ice roads across the river to the South Shore communities. To and fro, the sleigh drivers would make their way, conveying firewood, occasional farm products and other loads, as well as people. They followed tracks marked by evergreen saplings set at close intervals along the way, much as snowmobile clubs mark routes for their members across frozen lakes in our own day. It was rough going, for the ice in places off Montreal often heaved up in daunting ridges and blocks, and occasional thin spots in the surface presented other dangers, but it worked. Could it work not just for sleighs but for something far heavier, a steam locomotive and a string of cars?
In January 1880, a small consortium of Grand Trunk rivals, led by the provincially owned Quebec, Montreal, Ottawa and Occidental Railway, set out to try. Thumbing their noses at the Victoria Bridge, they laid a temporary rail line across the now-thick ice to Longueuil and announced a shuttle service to the South Shore for as long as the ice was safe.
RelatedThe first run was a sensation. Crowds gathered at the waterfront where a small engine and several cars, all decorated with flags and fir boughs, stood ready to go. People were invited to climb on board for the inaugural run, and many quickly did. However, a few among them found that their winter boots were no antidote for their suddenly-cold feet and just as quickly climbed back down. Holes had been cut in the ice nearby to test its thickness, and the water now bubbling up through them was an ominous sight. Nonetheless, the jaunt across the river and back came off without a hitch. The QMO&O and its allies had presented shippers with an alternate way of getting things across the river, at least for a few months.
Flushed with their success, they decided to repeat the venture the following winter. The ice railway opened for business on Jan. 5, 1881, but that very afternoon things went bad. QMO&O yard engine No. 31 pulling 17 cars from Longueuil to Hochelaga jumped the tracks and fell over on its side. The shock was enough to crack the ice, and the engine began sinking into 30 feet of water. The crew just managed to jump clear in time; the engineer lay stunned for a moment on the ice, only coming to when cold water from the widening gulf in the ice began to soak him.
Despite this setback, and as audacious as ever, the line’s operators vowed to continue. “Almost immediately afterwards,” the Gazette reported, “the work of repairing the track was commenced. … The engine will be raised at once, the Company having already received a number of offers to undertake the work.”
An experienced diving contractor from Sorel named Charles Champagne was chosen to direct the recovery. Within three days of the accident, the tracks had been rerouted and service resumed. Meanwhile, Champagne and his crew, led by a diver named Larin, set about determining that the sunken engine was in sound condition. More challenging, they also had to figure out how the engine could be levered up from the river bottom and placed on the fragile ice surrounding the hole without it or their equipment plunging back through again. Five days after the engine had gone down, however, it was on its way back up to the open air and safety.
The service across the ice continued for the rest of that winter without serious incident, prompting the QMO&O to go for a third season. However, nature failed to co-operate. January 1882 was unusually mild, and the service was late in getting under way. The unsuitable weather continued, and runs across the river often had to be suspended. It proved to be the last year for the ice railroad. The Victoria Bridge had the last laugh.