Disasters and Calamities, 1840-1867
Nathalie Lampron

Fires, shipwrecks, catastrophic accidents ... history occasionally takes grim byways; and Canada has known its share of disastrous events. Between 1840 and 1867, thousands of lives are lost in disasters of all kinds. Why it's enough to send shivers up your spine!

Disasters and catastrophes wrench us from our daily routines and turn our lives upside down. The Atlantic coast, for example, is often pounded by frightening storms like the 'Yankee Gale' that hit Prince Edward Island in 1851 and sank more than 60 boats, or like the powerful storm that led to the loss of the vessel Hungarian in 1860. Other tragedies, like the collapse of a railway bridge near Hamilton, Ontario in 1857, could of course, have been avoided. Much ink has been spilled on events like this one, which involve human error or mechanical failure.

Canada, with its harsh climate, has taken shape gradually as people have poured in to take possession of, populate and manage its immense territories. While Arctic exploration expeditions haven't always ended well, they have made it possible to map the Far North. Sir John Franklin's famous yet unhappy expedition of 1847 is a good case in point.

A rapidly expanding railway network ties far-flung communities together during this same period - which is, however, marked by deadly rail accidents. The worst of these occurs near Beloeil on the Richelieu River in 1864. Fortunately, however, the railway companies introduce innovations that will eventually made trains safer. For example, the installation of telegraph poles along the railroads lays the groundwork for a much needed communications system.

Canadian cities and towns also find themselves struggling to manage their own accelerated growth, all the while dealing with unforeseen problems like the cholera and typhus epidemics that claim thousands of victims in the first half of the 19th century, or like the fires that strike Quebec City in 1845 and 1866.

Thus, disasters are an integral part of the history of Canadian communities. But since every cloud has a silver lining, these tragedies at least have the advantage of inducing people to take steps to ensure that others of their kind may not be repeated.