Wednesday, July 1, 2009

This Month in Rochester History

This month, we look back thirty-eight years at the Grand Trunk derailment accident of July 9, 1971. At that time, Grand Trunk Western's No. 416 ran a daily route from Pontiac to Port Huron with two locomotives, usually hauling new GMC trucks, Pontiac cars, and automobile parts. The 416 normally passed through Rochester early in the morning, around 7 a.m. Upon arrival in Port Huron, the GTW crew would yard their train and make the return to trip to Pontiac in the afternoon as No. 415, passing through Rochester again around 1 p.m.

Fellow historian Robert Michalka tells me that he was working at the Rochester Paper Mill on Friday, July 9, 1971. He recalls that he was outside the building about 6:55 a.m. when he heard No. 416 start the signal for the Diversion Street grade crossing. Bob's attention was caught by the fact that the signal was never completed. Wondering what was amiss, he looked up the tracks in the direction of the depot and saw a dark cloud of what he thought was smoke. Actually, he was seeing a large cloud of dust and debris from the abrupt demolition of the Grand Trunk depot, which stood on the north side of the tracks, west of the South Hill bridge. No. 416 had derailed, knocking the office part of the depot forward, destroying the freight house section, and scattering its lading of new cars and trucks across the yard.

The second unit of the train's locomotive and thirteen freight cars had left the tracks; the train comprised fifty-six cars in total. On this particular day, the GTW crew consisted of engineer Carl Neimi, fireman David R. Butler, head brakeman Ken Hudson, flagman Bill Olinek and conductor Bill Byram. Butler recalled that he heard and felt the train's brakes go into emergency mode as they passed through Rochester; he and engineer Neimi looked back to see a huge cloud of dust as the train abruptly stopped.

Investigators later determined that a sharp flange on a wheel on the fourteenth car in the train had split the west house track switch (the track that ran behind the depot over to the east switch at Diversion Street). Fortunately for the station agent, he was not yet on duty at the time that No. 416 came into town, so he missed being part of the accident, and most likely death, by only minutes. There were no injuries or deaths among the train crew of GTW No. 416, nor any civilian injuries. The only fatality was that of the station agent's German shepherd dog, which lived in the freight house. The dog's lifeless body was recovered from the station debris.

Repair crews worked through the weekend to clear the twisted metal and wreckage of the depot from the Grand Trunk tracks. The depot, effectively reduced to a pile of kindling, was never rebuilt, and the track was abandoned by the Canadian National railway in 1998. Today, the former rail bed is part of the Clinton River Trail.

I am indebted to Robert Michalka for sharing his recollections of this event with me, and for putting me in touch with former GTW trainman Charles H. Geletzke, Jr., who marshaled his own sources in the industry and contributed most of the first-hand detail included in this article.

Photos: This photo of the Grand Trunk Western depot at Rochester was taken by Charles H. Geletzke, Jr. in September 1963. The photo showing the cleanup of the accident debris underway was taken by Sheldon Mowat.


  1. Is this a picture of the still-standing depot at University & Water, or some previous depot under the bridge?

  2. Sorry, after reading further I can see that you mention the station was never rebuilt. Thanks

  3. What are the silos for in the picture back ground. Also the siding that went behind the depot ended at a loading dock of some sort (I recently found the wreckage, what was that.