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May 16, 2008

The History of a Mystery Train Wreck Solved

On April 24th, 2008 I received an email from Paul Kent from Highland Park, Illinois.  Paul's father, Dr. Geoffrey Kent had died on April 17 and the family was writing a biography of him.  In particular Paul wanted to know about a September 14, 1952 train wreck near Morel on the CPR line in which is father was involved providing medical services as a passenger. 

I had never heard of the accident or where Morel was, and could not find it on maps on file at first.  Roy Summers recognized the name as a stop a few kilometers west of Mattawa near Taggart Lake and close to the Mattawa River.  A couple of library books on the CPR did not include Morel but this happens when a location becomes redundant.  The name Morel rang a bell because the Morel name is well known in Mattawa.  Henry Morel was a Member of Parliament for twenty-two years and Leo Morel wrote the book Mattawa: the Meeting of the Waters. 

I went to the Nipissing University Library and asked one of the information officers for help accessing newspapers on that date.  The online Globe and Mail came up with the story and the Nugget on Microfilm had a long story with photos.   

 Dr. Geoffrey Kent had a remarkable medical career after his graduation in 1939 from the University of Amsterdam.  He escaped Amsterdam in May 1940 with 60 young Jewish children in his charge just hours before the Nazi invasion of the city.  He was a member of the Desert Rats Division of the Royal Army Medical Corps from1 943 to 1947 when he moved to Canada as a pathologist.  It was while in Canada that he was on the CPR train on that fateful day in September 1952. 

Dr. Geoffrey Kent M.D. in his military days - photo submitted by family

At 4:30 in the morning his train and another passenger train collided in the fog.  One train had lost its bearings in the fog and had not pulled off on the Morel siding to let the other past.  The 150 passengers were saved from more serious injury by the presence of 5 cars of express baggage that absorbed the impact.  Forty passengers and 5 crew members were injured, 2 critically.  Most of the 150 passengers had some cuts and bruises or strain.  One of the crewmen was well known Regis (Pep) Kelly, a member of the North Bay Hockey Hall of Fame.  Kelly played on two Memorial Cup teams and turned pro in 1934-35 with the Toronto Maple Leafs and played to 1942.  His profile in the Hall of Fame notes that Kelly was a fireman and engineer on the CPR and was injured on the job in 1952 (in the train wreck at Morel). 

Regis "Pep" Kelly, fireman on the train - former Toronto Maple Leaf player living in North Bay. Submitted photo.

The cars of both trains were "torn apart and shredded along the right of way".  The newspaper reported that 2 of the cars were loaded with fresh fish and burst open spreading their content along the track.  Early spectators carried off whitefish and Lake Trout dinners.  Torn out telephone poles cut off communications with North Bay and Mattawa. 

J.R. Meakes, Publisher of the Sudbury Star was on the train and wrote a report on the accident saying it was a "miracle" that saved them.  He said that a few more miles an hour would have put the trains in the Ottawa River 100 feet away down a 45 degree incline. 

Meakes also noted the work of Dr. Kent when he wrote "Then I met a hero of the wreck.  A fair slight young doctor whose quiet-spoken Oxford English calmed imminent hysteria while his sure hands made a rapid examination of the injured. 

The only doctor traveling in the two trains, he was bound for Montreal from Western Canada on No. 10. Like the nurses, the doctor made us promise 'not to mention names.' But the doctor does not need to be named to be remembered by the passengers of No. 9 and No.10. His early check established that little harm had come to passengers on No. 10. But the engineer and firemen of both locomotives were seriously injured - the crew of No. 10 critically. 

As dawn cleared the heavy ground fog a gas scooter from Mattawa chugged up and took the first load of the most seriously injured to Mattawa Hospital." 

 1948 CPR crash on Temiscaming spur line.  Nugget photo.

On September 22, 1952 G.H. Baillie Vice President of the CPR sent a letter to Dr. Kent where he stated that "the assistance which you so willingly gave was instrumental in alleviating the suffering and distress of many of the injured and we would like you to know that this is deeply appreciated." 

(When I told this story to one of my grandchildren he wanted to know if Dr. Kent was related to Clark Kent, the mild-mannered reporter of the Daily Planet who was Superman.) 

Dr. Kent went on to get a PhD in Pathology and had a multitude of prestigious positions in his field, publishing 160 articles.  He had a distinguished career in research, administration and teaching.  It is appropriate that his contribution outside Mattawa over half a century ago is remembered and appreciated.  If anyone has any further information on the accident let me know at the address below. 

The CPR had other accidents in the area over the years.  Two on the CPR's line to Temiscaming took place in the same time frame.  On October 12, 1948 three CPR employees were killed when six freight cars got away and traveled 1000 yards down a steep grade and hit a standing engine (see photo).  Marcel Gauthier was killed in 1957 on the Temiscaming line during Hurricane Audrey when a culvert washed out. 

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