TRAGEDY AT CANOE RIVER

by
Shirley Kolanchey

On June 24, 1995 members of Edmonton 's KVA Unit 21 and others gathered to remember 17 members of the 2nd Regiment Royal Canadian Horse Artillery headed for the Korean War but who never reached their goal.  Their special troop train collided with the Eastbound Continental CN No. 2 passenger train near Canoe River , B. C. on November 21, 1950 .

"At Cedarside" had been omitted from a telegraph message delivered to the troop train at Red Pass Junction.  Instead of the train going to a siding at Cedarside, between Valemount and Canoe River , it continued another eight km. to Canoe River and met the No. 2 train when it came around a mountain curve at full speed.

I was living in Edmonton at the time and recalled the accident for two reasons.  I came from a CN family so noticed anything to do with the railway, and it was the first time I heard of John Diefenbaker; the sound of his name intrigued me.

In his book One Canada, Diefenbaker tells that he was in Australia when John Atherton, the 22-year-old telegrapher charged with manslaughter in the crash, asked Edna Diefenbaker if her husband would defend him.  She said yes.  Atherton was acquitted.

My husband, John, had a different reason for remembering the crash.  He had passed this way a few days before, also on a troop train, headed for Fort Lewis , Washington , and Korea .

At the recent gathering at Canoe River , even the trains slowed down as we paid tribute to the soldiers who had died in this thinly populated area of northeastern B. C.  The CN arranged so that no trains would pass through during the service, and also provided their security police.

In the quiet setting, surrounded by tall trees, snow-capped Rocky Mountains and an overcast sky, 125 peopleKorean War veterans and their families, friends, relatives of the deceased, military personnel, Legion members and CN employeescame from the three Western provinces to honor the soldiers and also the train crews who were killed.

We all met at the town of Valemount , where two large school buses transported the guests several kilometres to a point just west of Canoe River .  We turned off No. 5 Highway onto an obscure gravel road, drove through the trees up to the railway tracks, then walked a short distance to a cairn. 

The event was planned by Edmonton 's Korea Veterans Association Unit 21.  Their color party marched to the sound of the bagpipes and an RCMP officer in his dress uniform stood at attention during the ceremony.  The gun salute was presented by members of the 78th Field Battery of the 20th Field Regiment from Red Deer , Alberta .

We laid wreaths, observed silence for fallen comrades, listened to the Last Post and Reveille, sang O Canada and God Save the Queen, had Scripture Reading and Prayer.

Only the mute cairn standing tall beside the railway tracks with a plaque containing the simple words " 21/11/50 - 2nd Field Regiment - RCHA" hinted that something had gone awry.  The date also told us that the weather was not likely as tranquil on that November day back in 1950.  It had been -15'F and the ground was covered with several inches of fresh snow.

"It revived more painful memories than I expected," says John Stables of Edmonton, who first returned to the site at the time of the memorial service.  He was one of the soldiers who had boarded the train at Shilo , Manitoba , bound for Fort Lewis , Wash. , where they were scheduled to sail for Korea .

He remembers some details of the crash very clearly.  He was playing cribbage with three comrades when all of a sudden they were thrown forward, breaking the table.  They thought the train may have run into a land slide or pile of rocks on the rail bed. 

"I opened the coach door on the down-side and on looking towards the front of the train, saw all of the coaches in front of us were off the track.  The engines, baggage cars and some of the coaches were down the hill piled on top of one another."

He jumped out and ran toward the coaches, then started pulling at splintered wood and other debris to help the injured get out.  "I was using a rifle as a pry bar when a young officer said, 'Don't you know you are damaging military equipment using a rifle as a pry bar.'  The officer must have been in shock."

He spent quite a bit of time on top of the wreck helping to remove the injured and dead; some were personal friends.  "Probably because I had been subjected to scenes of injury and death during the 2nd World War helped me somewhat to deal with the situation," he feels even now.  Many of the younger soldiers had been in uniform only a few weeks.

Stables also recalls seeing a railroad watch on one of the train crew who was killed.  His crushed watch had stopped at the time of the wreck10:35 .

"It was a solemn and quiet troop of gunners as the train made its way to Edmonton to remove the dead and injured, before proceeding to Wainwright for re-equipment before proceeding again to Fort Lewis , Washington ."

Six other soldiers from that fateful train were also at the service.  George Skinner came from Barrhead, Alberta, and the rest came from points in British Columbia:  Tom Dussome (Sardis), Henry Mynett (Chilliwack), Fred Quebec and Ken Campbell (Prince George), and Len Johann from Cedar on Vancouver Island.

The actual site of the accident is over a kilometre west of the cairn and the only identifying marks are a newer growth of trees.  It is difficult to reach except by rail.  After the ceremony, Fred Quebec walked to the site.  "Now I can put the accident behind me," he said later.

John Stables honored his comrades by reading the names of the gunners who died in the wreck.  They had come from across CanadaArden Atchison (Loon Lake, Sask.), Weldon Barkhouse (Wolfville, N. S.), Norman Carroll (Pennant, Sask.), Frederick Conway (Grand Falls, Nfld.), Robert Craig (Foam Lake, Sask.), Austin George (Eight Island Lake, Nfld.), Urbain Levesque (Ottawa, Ont.), Robert Manley (Niagara Falls, Ont.), Basil McKeown (Moscow, Ont.), Albert Orr (Calgary, Alberta), David Owens (Granby, Quebec), Leslie Snow (St. Johns, Nfld.), Albert Stroud (Howley, Nfld.), Joseph Thistle (Conception Bay, Nfld.), James Wenkert (Cowansville, Quebec), James White (Placentia Bay, Nfld.) and William Wright (Neepawa, Man.).

Mrs. Glenda Conforth from Jasper paid tribute to the four train crew who also were killed.  Her father, Harvey Church, was the engineer on the troop train; he was 49.  The fireman, Henry Prosinuk, had just transferred to Jasper from Edmonton a week earlier.  Jack Stinson was driving  the transcontinental train, accompanied by fireman Adam Oleschuk.

Another special guest at the memorial service was Mrs. Ardina Atchison, 87, whose son, Arden, died in Jasper right after the crash.  She was accompanied by her son, Bruce, and daughters, Betty Petrie and Verlie Mason.  Originally from Saskatchewan , they all now reside in the Edmonton area. 

Although the family had driven past on the highway many times, they were never sure where the accident had happened.  For the mother, it brought back a lot of memories of her newly married son who had just turned 21 on November 17th. 

Bruce was 11 at the time.  "I remember clearly a soldier bringing the coffin to Loon Lake for burial."  Verlie, who was only four years old when her brother died, wondered somewhat sadly what might have been had Arden lived.  He would be 65 now.

Larry LeForge attended from Valemount.  He was working for the CN there in 1950, and was the first one called out to go to the scene of the wreck.

KVA Unit 21 President Lee Simpson paid tribute to the many soldiers who were injured in the wreck, especially those who are still suffering from their injuries.

For seven of us, it was our first get-together since our veterans'  tour of Korea last April.  We exchanged pictures and recalled our visits to the battlefields at Kap'yong and the graves of the Canadian soldiers in the U. N. Cemetery in Pusan .

We came back to the 50th anniversary celebrations of the end of World War II, in our own city, and being televised from Holland .

At Canoe River , the same as in Korea and Europe , we honored those who had died in the service of Canada

Shirley Kolanchey is the wife of Chaplain John Kolanchey of KVA Unit 21, Edmonton , Alberta and has been editor of the unit’s newsletter for the past six years.  She was living in Edmonton at the time of the Canoe River train crash and remembers hearing about the injured being brought to the University Hospital .Her article was originally published in 1996 by Western People.

 

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