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Snow Storm of January 1918 Paralyzed Wellington County in Ontario.

Steve Thorning

Over the years this column has carried accounts of some of the major winter storms that have struck Wellington County and southern Ontario.

We have been spared major blizzards in recent years, but they dot our local history and provide material for old timers to entertain, and sometimes bore, an audience of younger people.

One such storm began during the afternoon of January 11, 1918, a Friday. As is often the case with bad storms, this one came out of the east. The wind increased in intensity during the late afternoon, and by nightfall it reached blizzard force. The temperature at that point was not far below the freezing point, but the wind seemed to go through heavy clothing with ease and found every crack in the walls of buildings.

Though there was not a great deal of fresh snow, the wind stirred up the snow already on the ground, building it into high, hard drifts. The drifting on Friday night was at it worst in a band between Orangeville and Mount Forest. The evening Canadian Pacific train from Toronto through Orangeville and Mount Forest to Teeswater got bogged down near Grand Valley after bucking drifts all the way from Orangeville.

The railway sent out a plow train to deal with the drifts. After a few hours of work, and almost becoming bogged down itself at several locations, the plow got the track open as far as Mount Forest. The passenger train, due there at 9pm, eventually pulled in at 4am. The locomotive had run out of coal. The fireman drained the water out of the boiler to prevent damage from freezing, and the train sat at the station until the following Tuesday.

The next morning, a Saturday, the railways made a valiant effort to maintain service, but it was a losing battle. A few farmers braved a trip to the nearest town, but most regretted their decision. The temperature dropped drastically during the day, and the winds intensified.

The Grand Trunk sent a train over the branch from Palmerston - Durham. It got as far as Mount Forest before officials gave up on that line. By evening, officials had cancelled service on the rest of that company’s trackage in Wellington, including the Toronto - Sarnia main line through Guelph. Canadian Pacific canceled its trains as well, after a train sent from Orangeville in the morning struggled as far as Grand Valley.

About a dozen freight trains bogged down in the drifts or became stranded at stations in Wellington County. Several of them carried carloads of cattle. Farmers along the lines co-operated with cattle dealers in attempting to rescue the animals, but a number perished in trains that were blocked in drifts.

In the towns and villages, the few farmers who had ventured out to do their shopping were on their way home by noon. By late afternoon business was at a standstill. In some respects the storm-related isolation was much less severe than a generation earlier. Most farmers had a telephone in 1918, and neighbours could exchange information as the storm raged.

The railways could cope with the winter conditions much more effectively in 1918 than a half century earlier. Equipment was better, locomotives much more powerful, and the workforce more skilled and experienced.

On the other hand, the war conditions had made a major impact on day-to-day rail operations. Many skilled men had enlisted. Less skilled men took their places, and there were not enough of them. Further aggravating conditions was a coal shortage. Both railways had juggled their timetables in the fall of 1917 because there was insufficient fuel to maintain existing levels of service.

The coal shortage also affected homeowners and businesses. A few people attempted to substitute wood as a fuel, but that fuel quickly became scarce as well. Most buildings in that era had no insulation, and were anything but airtight. Consequently, many people wrapped themselves in blankets and huddled near their kitchen stoves.

Some residents, completely out of fuel, thanked generous neighbours for sharing a few scuttles of coal or armfuls of firewood. Unable to heat their buildings, several school boards had declared at the beginning of January that the Christmas vacation would be extended indefinitely.

As the temperature dropped, the wind shifted from the east to the southwest. Reported temperatures varied widely. In the north of Wellington various observers claimed their thermometers registered from minus 10 Fahrenheit to 24 below. With the strong winds such a variation is unlikely. Official observation stations put the lows at minus three and four. But with the bone-rattling winds it certainly felt much colder. Winds ripped shingles off many buildings, and in Mount Forest, a gust blew out a large window in the high school.

The storm forced the cancellation of all activities. A big cattle sale near Mount Forest, advertised for the Saturday, was postponed one week. Hockey games were either cancelled or rescheduled.

On Saturday night, at the height of the storm, a major fire broke out in downtown Listowel. The fire brigade there sent appeals for aid to Palmerston and Harriston, but there was no way for men and equipment from those places to get to the blaze. The fire claimed eight stores on one side of the main street. The heat was so intense that plate glass windows across the street cracked and splintered. It was the worst disaster ever affecting the business core of that town.

The storm continued unabated into Sunday. Rural churches cancelled their services, and most in the towns did so as well. Most of those that did open moved to their basements, making no effort to warm up the main part of the buildings. The few churches that did offer morning services cancelled their evening sessions.

The storm lessened in intensity late on Monday, but most activities scheduled for that evening were rescheduled or cancelled. The railways called in their crews and began their work of opening their lines. The Grand Trunk sent a plow with three locomotives and a passenger car of labourers south from Owen Sound Monday afternoon. The train did not reach Fergus until Wednesday. The snow was so dense in places that the front wheels of the plow derailed. The men had encountered drifts as high as 17 feet, and had to dig them out by hand.

With Elora and Fergus isolated from Guelph, J.C. Farrelly, the Elora mail carrier, managed to make a trip by horse and cutter to Guelph and back on Tuesday, bringing back the mail that had piled up in Guelph for three days.

Canadian Pacific men based in Orangeville opened the Elora branch first before tackling the longer and more difficult lines from that town. Service to Elora was back to normal Tuesday evening.

Most of the lines were restored to service on the Wednesday, and the balance Thursday, six days after the storm began. Some people claimed it had been the severest storm in 30 years. Other oldtimers rated it the worst in memory. Had there been more fresh snow the situation would have been much worse. However, the amount of fresh snow was not measurable due to the blowing and drifting.

Township and county councils did little to open the roads immediately, but within a week most were at least passable, an achievement that would not have been possible without volunteer help from farmers. Systematic winter road maintenance was still a decade in the future in 1918.

The storm of 1918 was the worst to hit Wellington County until the one at the end of the winter of 1942. That one is still remembered today. Unlike that of 1918, it was well photographed and better documented. Tales and snapshots of the 1942 storm are remembered and treasured by many old Wellington County families. The 1918 storm is largely forgotten today, but still forms a chapter in our local history.

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