Thursday, September 21, 2017

The 1956 Miracle in Westboro

The morning of Tuesday November 13th, 1956 began like most others in west Ottawa. The weather was typical for mid-November, with sub-zero temperatures overnight leading to chilly mornings for commuters travelling into the city for work or school. On this particular morning the temperature hovered around zero, and the skies were largely cloudy. A dull November morning in Ottawa, but it would not stay that way for long.

The OTC was of course still running streetcars in 1956, but the writing was on the wall for their future. The trams were losing the city money. Big money. The City had acquired the streetcar line from the privately-operated Ottawa Electric Railway in 1950 for the incredible price of $6.3 million. It did not take long for the evidence to flood in that it was a bad deal. The infrastructure and the cars themselves were aging, but besides that, North America was in the midst of a serious transition to roadways and highways. Car was king, and buses for public transportation were seem as cheaper, easier to manage, and more modern. The railway was on its way out, and by 1956, the lines were expensive to run. It would be a little over a year later that the City would announce that they would be scrapping the entire streetcar service, and indeed they did, with the final car running on the Britannia line in May of 1959.

Back to November of 1956, the streetcars from Britannia would pick up commuters in the morning, and bring them into Ottawa along Byron Avenue to Holland, then north to Wellington, then east over the Somerset Bridge to Preston Street, north to Albert, and then east into downtown. The entire trip would take between 35 to 40 minutes.

Streetcar in 1959 crossing Golden Avenue just in front of the
Highland Lawn Bowling Club (on right), looking east.
The would be the last little waiting station before Churchill. 

That morning, streetcars were coming through Westboro heading east every five minutes or so. One in particular was driven by conductor Yvon D'Aoust that morning, which passed through McKellar Park and Westboro just before 8:30.

By this point, the train was packed full, standing room only, with an estimated 70-75 passengers on board, largely students and office workers. The streetcar went up the hill on Byron to Churchill, and stopped at what was then a stop sign at the Churchill intersection. Operator D'Aoust then crossed Churchill and stopped at the small station where 7 passengers were waiting to board.

At the same moment that morning, Gaston Regimbal of Forward Avenue, a 24-year-old truck driver with the Frazer Duntile Company was driving his full dumptruck northbound on Churchill Avenue. The truck was full of rock recently mined from Frazer Duntile quarry at Clyde Avenue. The Citizen reported it was a 20-ton truck filled with 17 tons of stone; the Journal said it was a 10-ton truck full. Either way, it was a big, heavy load coming north up Churchill. Regimbal was driving at what he later estimated was about 10 miles per hour, and was approaching the Churchill hill, when he noticed the Churchill Public School traffic patrol flagging him down to stop.

"I eased on the brakes and nothing happened" Regimbal said later, "I thought for a second I could swing east into Byron avenue but there were some kids standing on the corner." He considered wheeling around the children, but at that very moment, a car rolled up to the westbound Byron Avenue stop sign at Churchill. When Regimbal realized he wasn't going to be able to stop the truck, he spun his wheel to the left in an effort to simply swing the truck around the streetcar, in the hopes of avoiding an oncoming car as well. However, he miscalculated by 10 feet.

The Journal reported: "When the truck hit the tram, an avalanche of rock cascaded over its cab roof. The heavy stones crashed in through the cab windows among the passengers. Oddly, none of the big rocks hit the crowded tram occupants." The Citizen added "Crushed stone burst into the street car through shattered windows, showering passengers with broken glass and debris."

Regimbal told reporters later "There was a terrible crashing sound and people began to scream. I cut the power at once, and threw over the lever which controls the doors. The front doors opened immediately, but the back doors were jammed." He added that after the initial shock there was little or no panic among the passengers, and all of them filed out quickly through the front doors. "Some were bleeding about the face and head, and a few had to be helped, but it seemed apparent, almost at once, that no one had been killed or badly injured." Regimbal himself was shaken up and had cuts to his head and face.

Photo from the Ottawa Citizen

Miraculously, no one was killed, or even seriously injured. There were a total of 10 injuries, but none of them major, beyond cuts and bruises. One can only imagine what would have happened had the streetcar luckily not been positioned there to hit, and the truck instead would have barreled down the hill on Churchill towards the much busier Richmond Road intersection out of control and gaining speed, during the peak of the morning rush hour. The results could have (and likely would have been) devastating.

"It was a lucky thing at that, for God knows what might have happened if I had torn down the Churchill hill out of control." Regimbal told the papers.

Someone asked him why he hadn't tried his hand brake. "Ever try to stop 10 tons with your arm?" he asked back.

"We were over the crossing and almost stopped - in fact barely moving - for the passenger pick-up, when wham-bam, it sounded and felt like a bomb had hit us. The back of the car was jarred and jolted up and over almost to the west-bound track. Then there were shouts and screams and the tinkle of falling glass. We were lucky; everybody could get out under their own power", said D'Aoust.

Looking west down Byron. That's the laundromat at right.
(Source: Ottawa Archives AN-46674)

The view looking east, showing the point of impact.
(Source: "Ottawa's Streetcars" book by Bill McKeown)

The injured were all taken to the Civic Hospital via Exclusive Ambulance, Ottawa Police and OTC cars. The Civic had been called from the scene, alerting them to the possibility of a major emergency. Every available doctor and nurse was waiting when the injured began to arrive. A nurse reported "We did not know how bad the accident was, and we were ready for anything. When they began to come in there was a lot of blood in evidence, but we realized quickly that we had nothing more serious than some nasty cuts and ugly-looking bruises to care of of. A few were suffering from shock, but no one was in serous condition."

Injured were Regimbal (the truck driver), D'Aoust (the tram operator), and passengers Donald Stevens (40 years old), Mabel McGovern (31), Bruce Keeler (15), Lloyd Gore (14), Paulette Lacosse (10), John Gleeson (12), Dalton Parks (16) and William Croshaw (14).

Photos of some of the passengers, taken just after the accident.
From the Ottawa Citizen, November 13 1956 evening edition.

Some of the eye-witness testimony described a harrowing experience for those on board:

"I was sitting in the seat nearest the window when the truck hit", said Donald Stevens. "It's a miracle that I escaped with only these cuts. The rock slammed in among us. There was a great swirl of dust and a lot of screaming and then we started sorting ourselves out." Mr Stevens was swabbing several bloody cuts on the side of his face and the back of his neck with his handkerchief while telling the papers his story. "Sure I saw the truck veering in on us, but in the space of a couple of seconds what can you do, except sit there frozen and helpless, staring?"

Mabel McGovern was located at the front of the streetcar, standing, when it was hit "I didn't see a thing" she said "First thing I know I was looking at the car floor. The impact flung me on my face in the aisle. The thing I can't understand is that it was my ankles that were hurt."

Bruce Keeler was sitting in one of the rear seats facing south on Churchill and saw the truck approaching "I ducked my face in my hands and waited" he said, "It was a terrific jolt."

Harold Watson, 23, was sitting on a side seat at the rear reading a newspaper. "Suddenly I was hurled forward out of the seat and people standing in the aisle were bowled over like ninepins. Broken glass flew around my head and one jagged piece ripped right through my newspaper. But I wasn't even scratched by the glass. All I got was a bruise above the left knee. That must have been when I was thrown to the floor."

Photo of the interior of the streetcar, with rocks and broken
glass covering the floor. From the Ottawa Journal.

Paulette Lacasse, 10 years old, had been standing in the aisle "I was never so scared. I was so frightened after it happened. I couldn't move. I didn't know for a minute what had happened, but I was sure it was awful."

Dalton Parks was one of two boys from Stittsville on the streetcar, and reported a "tremendous crash" when the truck hit. "The street car seemed to lift up in the air for a minute. I thought it was going to turn over but it didn't."

Area police were also busy that morning with another train-truck accident. Ironically, just twenty minutes after the Byron-Churchill collision, a separate accident took place in Hull, which saw a 55-year-old Gatineau Point man killed. An Ottawa to Montreal CPR passenger train struck a panel truck at a level crossing on St. Henri Street at 8:50 a.m.

The Westboro crash stopped all streetcar traffic on the Britannia line for over two hours, with twelve cars on each side lining up in the queue behind the accident. The streetcar's rear wheels, as shown in the photos above, were pushed all the way over to the west-bound line, buried into the right of way, and blocking both tracks. The OTC acted quickly to reroute buses to pick up the streetcar passengers, sending buses from Churchill to Britannia, and east from Churchill to Holland Junction. They also rushed work crews to the scene to put the train back on the rails and clear the tracks.

Interestingly, Churchill Avenue just prior to the accident had been targeted as a concern by local residents, who complained that it was being used by heavy commercial traffic as a cut-through between Richmond Road and Carling Avenue. Local truck traffic was permitted at the time, but not through-trucking.  Many residents had been actively complaining to the City Police, but nothing had been done about it. Just a week prior to the crash, Controller Donaldson had asked City Police to investigate the traffic on Churchill. It was simply an accident waiting to happen. Thankfully, no lives were lost and a major Westboro tragedy was averted.

Of course the story was the lead headline in that evening's edition of the newspaper:

Ottawa Citizen evening edition, November 13, 1956.


  1. Pleased to find such a great story retold. My great grandfather was the owner of Frazer Duntile, Frazer Lumber, and The Ottawa Sash and Door Factory.