Firefighters hose down one of the engines, top, from what was then Welland's Evening Tribune (story and photos credited to Karen Crozier, Michael Davie, and Joop Gerritsma). VOICE GRAPHIC

Fatal collision at Webber Road crossing happened 40 years ago next week

Residents of Fenwick have a close connection to the old Toronto Hamilton Buffalo train tracks, which cut diagonally through the village. Current residents have become used to the repeated train whistles as the engineer signals at each of six level crossings within a two kilometre span. Long-time residents may recall the old Fenwick train station, just off Church Street, that provided passenger service between Toronto and Buffalo until 1966, when the station was torn down.

Pelham’s weekly paper of the era, the Herald. VOICE GRAPHIC

Passenger service didn’t stop with the destruction of the station however, and travelers could still operate a manual signal at the site and bring the trains coming from Buffalo to a halt so they could board for the trip to Toronto.

Valerie Grabove, a Fenwick resident who commuted to Toronto two or three times a week, recalls that buying a ticket at Union Station in Toronto for “destination Fenwick” never failed to get a baffled reaction from the ticket seller behind the wicket, but the train dutifully came to a stop in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere to the puzzled Buffalo-bound passengers, and drop her off at the side of the tracks. This custom passenger service finally stopped in the early 1980s.

Partial cover of the Feb. 13, 1980 Tribune. VOICE GRAPHIC

In an article published online in 2012, Brett Rohaly, who lived on Poth Street in the early ‘70s, remembered hitching rides on the westbound trains so he could play tennis in Fenwick. He and his friends would jump on an eastbound train after their game for the ride home. Rohaly also recalled a derailment near his home in 1972, resulting in a chemical spill that forced his family to evacuate for several days.

The Pelham connection to the TH & B received national attention on February 11, 1980, when a Toronto-bound freight train was derailed by a collision at the Webber Road level crossing. The driver of a Union Carbide transport truck from Welland, carrying 25 tons of electrodes, apparently tried to beat the train to the crossing and was killed in the collision.

The absence of skid marks, combined with the clear conditions in broad daylight, led officials to conclude that driver error was the cause of the crash that derailed seven cars and four engines of the 104-car train. At the time, there was also speculation that the driver fell asleep, according to Fenwick resident Gary Chambers, who lived not far from the accident site.

When diesel fuel ignited, flames shot some 200 feet into the air. Three Canadian Pacific Railway workers were in the lead engine that was hit by the truck and overturned. Though dazed, they managed to crawl out of the engine before it caught fire, and all were treated at Welland General Hospital for minor injuries and released. The truck driver was pronounced dead at the scene.

Local residents at the time complained that the signals at the Webber Road crossing sometimes malfunctioned, and this was investigated as a possible contributing cause of the tragedy, but eventually discounted. A bush lot on the south side of the crossing was also cited as possibly screening the train from the view of motorists. This too was dismissed, and the bush lot still exists on the southeast corner of the crossing.