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A Family Affair

Junior lance corporal John Dunn enjoyed Christmas at the Doctor’s House in Almonte with his family. John had been scheduled to work over the weekend until about 4 o’clock that Friday afternoon when the adjutant suddenly walked into the orderly room and surprised him with a pass until 0800 on Monday. The Manning Depot at Lansdowne Park would be quiet over the weekend, saying he’d certainly be able to handle it by himself.

Drawn image of the front facade of the Doctor’s House in Almonte, 1960s

The Doctor’s House, Almonte – 1960s


When the clock struck 7:30 on Sunday night, John left his warm spot by the fireplace and the quiet conversation of his family. He’d have to get going if he was going to make the train back to Ottawa. His aunt, who had joined them for Sunday dinner, was travelling to the city as well. After putting on his army greatcoat and saying goodbye, they were off to the train station with plenty of time to spare.

Too much time, as it turned out. The 8 o’clock arrival time came and went.

The evening train was late.

Very late.

The Long Wait

The men’s waiting room was full. All the seats on the benches were taken; some were even sitting on the radiator under the window.

Finally, nearly forty minutes late, it arrived.

John met his aunt on the crowded platform and started making his way towards the last coach. He always went to the last one; it was the closest to the gate at Ottawa Union Station.

“Oh, my hat,” his aunt exclaimed. “This is a brand new hat, and walking to the back in this snow and rain will ruin it. Can’t we get in up here?”

“Of course,” John said, as he led the way to the fourth car from the rear.

Finding no seats at all, John tried the third from the rear. Nothing there either, although he did see a friend from Renfrew seated under the luggage rack. Back to the fourth, it was; at least there was standing room in the aisles.

Bearing Witness

Unbeknownst to John, two of his brothers, Arthur and Declan, had walked down with one of their friends to see the train off. Lots of young people in Almonte used to walk down to the station to see the train leave, watching the hustle and bustle as people headed back into the city for work. But the unexpected wait and poor weather was causing the outing to lose some of its shine.

Finally, they decided they had waited long enough and started to make their way home. They had just reached Mick McCabe’s butcher shop when the train arrived. And then, the strangest thing happened; they heard the whistle of another train, and watched in shock as another locomotive ploughed into the rear of the passenger train.

Arthur quickly stepped into the drug store and called his father.

‘Pick up your black bag and hurry down to Town Hall,’ he told him, ‘You’re going to be busy.’

Photograph of a train travelling on a track with Almonte town hall in the background, 1950s

A train passes in front of Almonte Town Hall – 1950s

A Dear Friend’s Passing

In the confusion of the crash, John thought a coupling must have broken. As he stood in the aisle, clutching two brass handholds on the seats to either side of him, he stared at the great gap that had opened between the front end of the train and their coach. Suddenly, he remembered his friend in the third car and scrambled past other shaken passengers to see if he was all right. The steel piping of the luggage rack had impaled him. He had died instantly.

John could hardly believe his eyes. He rushed down the steps to the station platform. Debris was everywhere and he heard the steam from an engine hissing from the rear. How was that possible? He couldn’t comprehend it. Another engine sat there, its engineer still sitting in the cab. It’s front pilot wheels were two or three inches above the tracks.

Collecting himself, he went back inside the coach and told his aunt they would be delayed at least until morning. As they left the train, she clutched her new hat protectively under her arm.