Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Manitoba's Worst Train Disasters: Birdtail River (1968)

This is one in a series on Manitoba's worst train crashes.

Top: April 24, 1968, Regina Leader-Post (source)
Bottom: Winnipeg Tribune Archives (source)

At 2:45 am on April 23, 1968, a 97-car CN cargo train is about to cross the Birdtail River trestle bridge, about 20 kilometres south of Birtle, Manitoba.

Shortly after the train it began crossing the structure it gave way, sending four engines and 22 cars
into the valley below.

Three crew members, all from Saskatchewan, died at the scene. The bodies of engineer Robert Emerson, 50, and trainman Herbert Dagerstedt, 37, were found in the cab of one of the engines 25 metres below the bridge. A fourth, fireman Alfred Varga, 40, managed to jump before the train fell but died shortly after.

The rest of the train's crew were in the caboose and unhurt.

April 23, 1968, Winnipeg Free Press

On April 24, 1968, a coroner's inquest opened in Hamiota, Manitoba under the direction of Dr. J. Edward Hudson. It was immediately adjourned to May 23, 1968 to allow for surviving crew members and CN officials to attend.

CN officials examined the bridge and found charred timbers on the approach to the structure. They testified that the bridge was likely weakened due to a fire started by the brake filings from an earlier train. The crew refuted this claim saying that if they saw a fire burning or smouldering on the track ahead they would have stopped.

In the end, the derailment was ruled accidental.

March 29, 1995, Winnipeg Free Press

Due to the difficulty of accessing the crash site, which was on the land of the Birdtail Sioux First Nation, the four locomotives and about 20 cars were buried near where they fell. 

Over the decades erosion began uncovering the wreck. The First Nation was concerned that children could end up playing on or around the site so in March 1995 began removal talks with CN. Negotiations broke down over costs. CN claimed it would cost $125,000 while the First Nation estimated it to be $500,000 to $700,000. 

Eventually, the Birdtail Sioux excavated the site on their own. In December 2002 the federal Government launched a $1.7m lawsuit against CN on behalf of the First Nation for costs relating to the cleanup.

The Dead:

Robert Emerson, 50, engineer. Yorkton SK. Left a wife and five children.
Herbert Dagerstedt, 37, trainman. Melville SK. Left a wife and two children.
Alfred Varga, 40, fireman. Left a wife, Adeline, and four children.


Rob Varga said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rob Varga said...

Thanks for posting this. After all these years I still look for more on this wreck.

Alfred Varga was my Dad. I was the lodest at 8 years. He left behind 4 boys, a new born girl and my Mom, Adeline. I will always miss him.

Just a couple of clarifications on the story. Mr. Emerson was actually from Yorkton, SK. Dad was 40 and he actually died at the scene shortly after the crash. The area was pretty remote back in 1968. Still was when I went there in 1993.

Just to add a bit of personal touch to this, Mr. Degerstead was our neighbour who only lived a few doors down from us. We hung out with his son Keith and daughter, Rhonda for quite a few years while growing up. Keith put together a memorial cairn and service in Melville honouring the men killed on duty from the Melville CNR station. All that work, yet they spelled his Dad's last name wrong. Go figure!

If you have any info on the outcome of the law suit, I would love to hear it.


Rob Varga

mrchristian said...

Thanks for commenting and making corrections.

If you send me an email at "cassidy at mts.net" I can send you the full newspaper articles from the Trib and Free Press that I used to write this story.

I tried to find the outcome of the lawsuit but couldn't. CN and the FN must have kissed and made up because earlier this year they were going to go into business together: http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/local/birdtail-sioux-rejects-oil-industry-201737411.html

mrchristian said...

Also, where was your father from ? Melville ?

Anonymous said...

A correction to your write up should read : Mr. Robert Emerson left a wife and FIVE children. My name is Colleen, his youngest of five. I was nine when he died on the job. We had lived in Melville but at the time of his death we lived in Yorkton.
He will never be forgotten.

Christian Cassidy said...

Thank you. The correction to the number of children has been made.

Anonymous said...

that was a bad accident i was at the accident scene right after it happened , as work for cn at that location , they say the piles on the bridge were cut with a chain saw or other type of saw , it wasn t cn fault ...

Colleen Ernst said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Dear Anonymous

Could you please elaborate on WHO said that the piles were cut with a chain saw or other type of saw; and who said that ?

Thanks for the info

Anonymous said...

attach to above comment - WHO and When was it said that a saw was used. Thanks