Plaques tell important local stories, even if some are tragic

JEANETTES CREEK – Dozens of people gathered on a rural road Saturday for the unveiling of a historic plaque that sits near where one of Canada’s worst train disasters occurred nearly 170 years ago.

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It was a foggy morning when the Great Western Express passenger train crashed into a gravel train just after 5 am that killed 48 people on the spot. Nine people would die a short time later of their injuries later. Another 46 passengers were maimed or injured.

“For many years this was the worst train disaster in Canada,” said local historian Jim Gilbert, who has written about the disaster in a column he and his wife Lisa Gilbert write for the Chatham Daily News.

He recalled the passenger train arrived in Chatham seven hours behind schedule, due to many troubles encountered since it left Niagara Falls, which was common place in the early days of the railroad.

The worse mistake was to happen when the assumption was made that the passenger train had already passed Baptiste Creek station, where the community of Jeannettes Creek is now located, explained Gilbert.

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The tragedy was set in motion when a gravel train went on the main track.

“When the passenger train came along it was dense fog,” Gilbert said, adding by the time the passenger train could see the gravel train, “it was too late.”

Gilbert said it was a “terrible crash” and the dead bodies and the injured were eventually returned to Chatham by train.

“The people in Chatham at that time report that when the train pulled into the station, blood was dripping from the cars,” he said. “And there were screams and groans and yells from the people on the cars that were injured.”

The Baptiste Creek Train Disaster plaque is the fifth one to be erected by the Chatham-Kent Heritage Network with two more planned for Mitchell’s Bay and Wallaceburg later this month.

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Heritage Network chair Lisa Gilbert said the network has typically worked with people in the community to decide on the story to tell and where a plaque has been erected.

But, she noted this plaque, located on Poppe Road and Tecumseh Line, was initiated by the Kent Historical Society.

Lisa Gilbert said the question was asked regarding who in the local community decided on this plaque.

“In this case we (Kent Historical Society) decided because this is such an important story that happened so long ago that most people don’t know about it,” she said.

Chatham-Kent Mayor Darrin Canniff has attended all of the five plaque unveilings the heritage network have held.

“History is so important,” he said, citing the rich history in the community.

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Although this particular history is a tragedy, the mayor said, “It’s something to keep alive.”

Canniff said he was talking to a resident who lives nearby and had no idea this tragic event happened.

Lisa Gilbert also noted people will say there are museums and history available at a click of a button on the internet “so why would you think it’s important to spend the money to put up a plaque?”

She believes it is important because it is a public display for anyone to see.

“I think it’s important for them to read a little bit about the history of Chatham-Kent,” Gilbert said.

Devon Buchanan, whose family farms near where the train disaster took place, helped unveil the plaque on Saturday. He had heard about the crash, “because my grandfather (Doug Buchanan) happens to be quite the history enthusiasts.”

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Doug Buchanan, 91, said he heard about the crash several years after his family moved to the Jeannettes Creek area about 65 years ago, but didn’t know all the details.

“I got the full details more or less from Jim and Lisa’s articles,” he said. “It was terrible, it’s hard to image how so many people were killed.”

He is glad the plaque is there to help tell people this story.

“A lot of people don’t know about it and if you can’t draw their interest with something like this then there’s something wrong,” Buchanan said.

Although there is a lot of information on the internet, Devon Buchanan said some of these local stories are not accessible.

“It takes speaking to people in the community to figure out the details,” he said.

“I think it’s really great that people in the community are taking time and putting forth effort to share these stories,” Buchanan added. “I know there’s definitely people interested.”

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