This Week in Peterborough: 1903


The site of the Frank Slide, as seen from Turtle Mountain in 2013 — click for larger image. (photo by Keith McClary, via Wikimedia Commons)

Some of the posts in this series have dealt with happy times in Peterborough and Canada: exciting new developments in the history of the town and the nation, stirring athletic feats, amusing anecdotes, and the like.  This, sadly, is not going to be one of the posts, as early May of 1903 was a fairly awful time both here and further away.  So, thus warned, click on for tragedy, calamity, and scandal (ok, there is one amusing anecdote, about a lacrosse game, but you have to read right to the end to find it).

On the morning of April 29th, 1903, approximately 80 million tons of rock ploughed through and over part of the village of Frank, in what was then the North West Territory but would shortly become Alberta.  The slide, which came down the slope of geologically-unstable Turtle Mountain, killed between 70 and 90 people (estimates vary, as most of the bodies have never been recovered), and relief efforts for the survivors were of course still ongoing in the first week of May.  The May 4th Peterborough Examiner described the scene as the village was evacuated for fear of further rock-slides:

“There was no confusion, no panic; but there was despair, and it appeared on the faces of the townspeople.  Not much was said; there was no time for parley.  Premier Haultain… conferred with police officials, and before 10 o’clock it had been decided to request, without demanding, that the populace move out for the night…  Many walked to Blairmore, two miles west of Frank.”

The newspaper did note, with bleak humour, that there had been “a boom in the bar trade at the three hotels.”  Incidentally, if the name “Haultain” sounds familiar, it is because the Premier of the North West Territory was the son of the Colonel Haultain whom we first encountered winning the Peterborough seat in the Province of Canada election of 1861 (and about whom this excellent piece of poetry was composed), so there was a slight Peterborough connection to the Frank Slide.

Elsewhere in the Dominion, the news was not much better.  A dock strike was raging in Montreal, and things had gotten so heated that the federal government had sent in soldiers; the May 6th Peterborough Review reported that the troops were “ready for war.”  And a horrendous accident near Fort William, Ontario, killed twelve men and seriously injured another eight, when the train car in they were sleeping derailed at high speed and caught fire.  The May 8th Examiner described it as “one of the worst accidents in the history of the Western railroads of Canada.”


Nicholl’s Hospital, where young Walter Noyes succumbed to his injuries. (postcard circa 1915, Source)

On that note, the town of Peterborough got a reminder of the dangers of trains this week in 1903 — two of them, in fact.  The first, and less serious, incident took place just outside Lindsay, when a train carrying wheat from Midland to Belleville derailed, destroying several cars and a long section of track.  No one, fortunately, was injured.  Less happily resolved was an incident that took place in Peterborough itself.  On Tuesday, May 5th, a 12-year-old boy named Walter Noyes, who lived on Rubidge Street, was hit and dragged by a shunting engine.  His right leg was “fearfully mangled,” according to the Examiner, and he died of his injuries a couple of days later.

Tragic though all these events were, they took second place among topics of interest for Peterborians this week in 1903.  At the top of the list was the ongoing political scandal in Ontario, which had a very profound local connection.  An MPP by the name of Robert Roswell Gamey, Conservative Member for the riding of Manitoulin, had alleged that the Liberal party had offered him a bribe of several thousand dollars to cross the floor (the Liberals, at the time, had a majority in the Provincial Parliament of exactly one seat, and so were presumably looking for some help).  It was a serious accusation, and a Royal Commission was soon convened to investigate.  The Commission began its work in April of 1903, and was wrapping up matters by the first week of May.


Peterborough Examiner, May 6th, 1903.

And what of this connection to Peterborough?  Well, the man accused of having given the green light for the bribe to be offered was none other than Mr. J.R. Stratton, Liberal MPP for the riding of Peterborough West.  He took the stand this week in 1903, facing seven hours of fierce questioning from the Commission’s lawyers and denying any involvement in shady political dealings.  According to the May 8th Examiner, Stratton “stood the ordeal well,” although it must be remembered that the Examiner was very much a Liberal newspaper.  Its Conservative counterpart in Peterborough, the Review, oddly refrained from much editorializing of its own, contenting itself with simple reporting of the Commission’s activities.   Whether this reticence was due to confidence that the facts spoke for themselves, or to some other motive, remains a matter for conjecture.

In any case, the Royal Commission on Gamey’s accusations was unable to determine that a bribery attempt had occurred.  Stratton kept his seat, and the Liberals their government, but the damage had been done.  The three-decade old Liberal political dynasty in Ontario would come to an end in the next provincial election, in 1905, when James Whitney’s Conservatives won a majority government.  Stratton would lose Peterborough West in that contest as well.  As for Gamey, he remained MPP for Manitoulin until 1917.

Given the depressing events in the town, province, and Dominion, it is little wonder that there was not much in the way of reporting on matters abroad this week.  To be sure, there were conflicts sputtering away in Greece and in the far eastern parts of Russia — the latter of these situations would later explode into the Russo-Japanese War.  And there was also a bizarre rumour — hastily and definitely debunked — that King Edward VII himself had been assassinated while on a diplomatic visit to Paris.  However, given the Bad Things that were happening closer to home, I think we can forgive Peterborians for having largely ignored these far-off troubles beyond a paragraph or two in the papers.


Peterborough Examiner, May 4th, 1903.

So, a bit a gloomy week it was, back in 1903, but we should not end on such a dire note.  It was, after all, Spring in Peterborough, and that meant that the local sportsmen were gearing up for the new season!  Sportswomen, too — the Stratton Trophy, a ladies’ match-play golf tournament in the town, was scheduled to begin play.  In addition, the Trent Valley Canoe Club had an event planned, in the form of a mile race along the Otonabee River. And finally the Peterborough Lacrosse Club held an intra-squad game  in front of a large audience at the Ashburnham Cricket Grounds.  The May 4th Examiner described the scene, and it is as good a way as any to close this piece off:

“Quite a crowd gathered here, the greater portion being of the feminine gender, to witness the match, which was very well-contested and proved to be a most interesting event.  An admission fee of ten cents was charged and it was highly edifying to observe the ingenuity of economy practised by a large crowd who, standing up in buggies, peering through knot-holes and crevices in the fence, clambering up the roofs of adjacent houses, hanging on telegraph poles and lamp-posts, and perched upon wood-piles and other classic eminences, feloniously and unlawfully participated in ill-gotten enjoyment of the national game.  Our reporter noted with profound satisfaction that numbers of those enterprising individuals, in the salvage of the ten cents admission fee, sacrificed coat tails and pantaloons to convenient nails, and were put to a degree of personal discomfiture which was regarded with baleful enjoyment by the defrauded ticket-seller at the gate.”

Next time out, we’ll check on mid-May of 1904!



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