Onlookers at the scene of the 1885 train crash.
An unseasonal shower of rain greeted the lunchtime train from Arima as it pulled into the St Joseph Railway station. It was Tuesday, 28th, January, 1885. Trinidad Government Railway had been operating since 1876. Those nine years passed without any fatal accident involving passengers on the railway. The line, at first, went from Port of Spain to Arima, but by 1882, it reached San Fernando, and Princes Town by 1884.
The passing of a San Fernando train made it necessary for the Arima train to wait a while in St Joseph, while passengers boarded and detrained. The entire railways system back then was single-lined. This meant, to avoid collision, the line must first be cleared of other traffic moving in the opposite direction. The “staff system” was in place at Trinidad Government Railway at the time. Before a train began its journey through a section of line between stations, the Stationmaster handed a staff (usually a painted metal hoop) to the train driver. Possession of the staff ensured that only one train could be on that section of line at a time. There was a notable exception to this rule at the TGR. In some circumstances a written pass could be issued to a train by the Stationmaster.
According to the schedule that existed, the Arima train would only have to wait for the San Fernando train to pass before it departed for San Juan, and then onto Port of Spain, but this Tuesday was an exception. At the request of the owner of a sugar factory in Chaguanas, a goods train with empty wagons left Port of Spain just after the San Fernando train. Its mission was to collect a cargo of sugar for a steamer in the Port of Spain habour which was leaving on the same day.
On that faithful Tuesday, Louis Fanovich was the Stationmaster at St Joseph, and the assistant Stationmaster was absent on sick leave. The St Joseph Station was under renovation, and with it came usual inconveniences. It was crop season, and the transportation of harvested cane and sugar by rail meant “busy season” at the TGR.
Fanovich was informed of the special train on its way to Chaguanas, but he somehow mistakenly issued a written pass to the Arima train, and waved it through the station. Realizing his mistake shortly after, he ran desperately after the departing train, waving a red flag, but it was too late.
In drizzling rain, just a few hundred yards away at Champ Fleurs, and still in sight of the station, the Arima train crashed into the goods train from Port of Spain. At that point, the line curved and there was a slight drop (an incline from the opposite direction). The curve, high grass at the side of the line, along with the fact that the Arima train was travelling bunker-first, made it impossible for the drivers to see each other’s train. Both drivers threw their engines into reverse before the crash, but wet rails, no doubt, made it harder to stop.
The east-bound locomotive jackknifed and came off the rails on the north side along with the carriage directly behind. The first two carriages were smashed to splinters, while the goods train remained on the line. The two drivers jumped out their locomotives before the impact. Henry Hubert Roberts, only slightly injured, went back to his smashed engine whose smokebox was now facing skywards. He drew the fire, and shut off the steam to prevent further incident. George Wilkie, the fireman on the goods train, did the same as his driver, Charles Henry Treddree (Freddie) was injured. Frederick Perryman, the fireman on the Arima train, was not.
Two people were killed on the spot: one Mr. Lord of the Government Telegraph Department, and Mrs. Louisa Gomes, a well-known widow from St Joseph. The elderly, Mrs. Gomes never used the railway in the entire nine years of its existence. She made an exception on that day, to visit her sick daughter a few miles away at Santa Cruz. Her first and last railway journey was just a few hundred yards.
Barbadian immigrant, Mr. Charles Armstrong, a builder/contractor, and resident of Tacarigua, was critically injured. He died the following day at the Colonial Hospital in Port of Spain. Mr. Armstrong, about 48 years old, was considered a hero, as he refused help while drawing the helpers' attention to other injured passengers. Sadly, this did not prevent bandits from making off with his gold watch and chain. Among the injured were two sisters, Sophie and Minnie Fraser. The elder sister, Minnie, 22 years old, was considered mortally injured with two broken legs, while Sophie’s injuries were less severe, and not life-threatening. Also injured were Mrs. Francis Gransaull, and one Miss Popo from St Joseph. No less than eight other persons suffered various injuries.
The Fraser sisters were daughters of the Lionel Mordaunt Fraser, who was the magistrate for St Joseph back then. Fraser held various Government posts in his lifetime including; Commandant of Police (up to 1877), and Inspector of Prisons.
The families of the injured and the deceased sued the Government, and claims that were first rejected by Governor Sir Arthur Havelock, were approved by newly appointed Governor Sir William Robinson in a compromise settlement that offered half the amount claimed by each party. Among the claimants who accepted the compromise was Mordaunt Fraser, who was told by Governor Havelock that as a public official he should not have taken action against the government.
As a result of the accident, Louis Fanovich was charged with manslaughter of Charles Armstrong, but was later acquitted in a highly publicized trial. The brunt of the blame was placed on the decision to allow the special goods train on the line in the first place. This outcome sat well in the hearts of the public who favoured Fanovich.
The January, 1885 accident was not the only fatal one on the single line between Port of Spain and St Joseph. Thirty years later, on Saturday 6th March, 1915, eleven souls were sent to meet their maker, and twenty others injured near McKenzie Bridge, just east of the San Juan Railway Station. Clearly, the single line on the busiest portion of the TRG had long become inadequate, and downright dangerous.
In 1923 a double line to St Joseph was finally completed, having been accomplished in stages beginning in 1913 at Railway Central (as the Port of Spain Station was called by TGR workers).
News of the 1915 accident must have especially troubled Minnie Fraser, who was, quite possibly, the last surviving victim of the 1885 crash, before she passed away on 15th, October, 1945, at the ripe old age of eighty-two.
Source: Reflections and Musings on Trinidad's History
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