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Thursday, 9 July 2015

The Accident on the Newfoundland Railway

A friend gave my brother, Frank Pretty, an article from the Daily News of St. John's, Newfoundland, dated August 14, 1919. It provides some interesting information about an accident my grandfather had on the railway line at Placentia Junction on the previous day.

It reads as follows:

Mr. Samuel Pretty one of the drivers on the railroad is now in hospital in precarious condition, as the result of injuries received yesterday at Placentia Junction. While examining a coupling the cars came together crushing him badly about the head. A special car with Dr. Paterson on board was rushed out as soon as word of the accident was received and returned to town at 4 o'clock this morning with the injured man. He was met at the station by Rev. Fr. Flyn who accompanied him to hospital in the ambulance, as also did Dr. Paterson and Const. Whelan.

                                                       Daily News, August 14, 1919

There is much to be learned from this article and much that can be put together from what we know of my grandfather's life at this time.

First of all, there must have been a protocol to follow when a worker was injured on the job at the Newfoundland Railway. Phones were in use on the island at that time but did Placentia Junction have a phone connection to St. John's or did they send a telegram to St. John's to report the accident?

The railway sent a "special car" which "rushed out" with a doctor on board to retrieve the injured man. This car must have been equipped with medical supplies for emergencies. But the "rushing" has to be taken in context of the nickname of the railway, the Newfie Bullet, because it was so slow. It was the fastest way to get to our grandfather at that time, but if his injuries were serious, he would have been long dead by the time help arrived from St. John's one hundred kilometers away.

It also says of Samuel Pretty, that "cars came together crushing him badly about the head." It is portrayed as a serious accident involving a head injury. How could Sam have survived it?

          Samuel Pretty

The priest and the constable met my grandfather, Pop, at the station. Pop Pretty had been married in the Roman Catholic Church but he was baptized in the Church of England. His parents died when he was young and he moved to St. John's to work in his mid teens. He may not have been practising his religion so joined his wife, Ida Stewart, in the Catholic Church when they married. The priest came because the injury might have been serious and to give Pop the last rites, called Extreme Unction at that time, if necessary. Knowing my grandfather and his lack of religious conviction in his later life, I wonder what he thought of this development, or if he was in fact conscious? Did his family ask the priest to attend to him? They lived in the shadow of St. Patrick's Church. Did Pop think that he was dying or was all of this routine procedure for a work injury on the railway?

The presence of the Constable gives the impression that an injury on the job required an investigation by the Newfoundland Constabulary. Foul play would have to be ruled out as the reason for the injury.

At this time in his life, my grandfather was married to Ida Stewart, and they lived on the west end of Water Street with her parents, Tom and Mary Walsh Stewart, across from the train station. Had his family been notified about the accident? If they didn't have a phone at that time, they may have been notified because of their proximity to the station.

By August 1919, Sam and Ida had two children, Muriel, born May 1918 and Albert, born June, 1919. Was Ida able to leave her two babies with her mother to meet Sam at the train station or at the hospital at four in the morning? Maybe her father, Tom, met him and went to the hospital to be with Sam.

           Tom Stewart

What was Ida thinking at this time? She must have had anxious hours waiting to find out how serious this accident was and to what extent her husband was injured. She could be left a widow with two babies. There was no welfare cheque as a social safety net at that time such as we have today. What would she do? The Stewart woman worked before they married, but Ida had two babies now. Would her parents help her?

      Ida Stewart Pretty

How long was my grandfather off the job? Did he have an income from the railway during that time? How did they manage?

When he went back to work, was Pop nervous doing the same task again? Did he have a new appreciation for life? 
If my grandfather had died from this injury, the remaining five children would never have been born, Tom, Marg, Angela, Sam and Robert. There are three generations of Pretty descendants alive today because Pop Pretty survived that injury.

Placentia Junction is where my brother, Frank, and his wife, Michele, own a cabin which was owned by Michele's parents. 

             Cabin at the Junction

Many railroad personnel owned cabins in the Junction area years ago. One such  worker was Jack Taylor, Michele's father. Another was my father's older brother, Tom. Long before there was a road into Placentia Junction, people travelled to their cabins at the Junction by train. It would be interesting to know where the accident occurred there.

    Area of previous railroad
            by driveway

Finally, it is interesting to see the use of punctuation in the Daily News in 1919; few commas were used in the story. The term Rev. Fr. to refer to the priest is not in common usage today either. Was the priest's name Flynn and not Flyn? Also the phrase "precarious condition" has been replaced today with standard terms such as critical, serious, or stable, depending on information released by the hospital. It is too bad such was not the case almost one hundred years ago because we would have a better idea of how bad Pop's injury was. From what his family saw of his life, he made a full recovery.

Thank you to Tom McGrath for the copy of the article.

Note: neither Albert nor Robert Pretty survived childhood.

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