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That time Len Gillis was assaulted by a railroad bull while downtown North Bay exploded

Sometimes the real story happens when you’re covering something else
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Len Gillis covers health care in northeastern Ontario, as one of Sudbury.com's LJI reporters. (Heidi Ulrichsen/ Sudbury.com)

Covering news events in Northern Ontario can be pretty exciting — but it is frustrating as hell when you think you have the hottest story in Northern Ontario only to find out yours is barely second best when part of a Northern Ontario city is blown up by a natural gas explosion.

It was the afternoon of Jan. 8, 1975 and I was in the newsroom on the top floor of The Timmins Daily Press, in the old Thomson building at 125 Cedar Street. Managing editor Gregory Reynolds slammed down the phone and bellowed that the Ontario Northland Railway (ONR) Little Bear train had derailed near Foxville and was on fire. 

I was less than a year on the job, but quickly piped up that I would be glad to chase down that story.

Soon enough I was on the phone to Wayne Antler, the ONR public affairs guy located in North Bay. Wayne was always a straight shooter and one of the many company guys that reporters learned they could trust with quick answers to tough questions.

Soon enough there was a message from Ontario Northland. There was no fax. There was no internet. This came through on the TELEX machine. 

There was indeed a train wreck on the ONR mainline between Cochrane and Moosonee. The press release said there were no injuries, no environmental damage, that the fire was under control and that repair crews would be on the scene soon enough to get the situation cleaned up.

Well that sounded pretty reasonable. So I put paper in the typewriter, along with a carbon copy, and wrote up the basic details. I brought it up to Greg, who told me to call it in right away to CP (Canadian Press), which was our obligation as a daily newspaper.  

Because it was afternoon I was pretty sure I would have to update the story before the next morning. Our press run was 10:30 a.m. every day but Sunday. 

Sometime shortly afterwards Greg took another call. This was from a woman who had been at the scene of the train wreck and had more information. She had been a passenger. In those days, Ontario Northland was allowed to run a combo train of freight and passenger cars as it was one of the few ways to travel from Cochrane to Moosonee. Then, as now, there was no year round road to James Bay. 

It soon became apparent from what the woman was saying that the wreck was worse than what ONR had described. Ontario Northland wasn't lying, but their details were pretty sparse. Apparently the fire was still burning. Greg called some friends and discovered that several ONR workers from Englehart, Timmins and Cochrane were soon to head out to the wreck. He told me to try to find a way to get on that work train heading North. The wreck was near a place called Foxville, north of Fraserdale. 

The Daily Press had only two company cars back then. One was a 1972 Chevy Nova for the newsroom; the other was a 1974 Plymouth Duster for the sales team. 

The Nova was not in the parking lot. I grabbed the keys for the advertising car, a camera and a fresh roll of film and headed out. I was wearing dress pants, street shoes, a shirt and tie, a blazer and a light winter jacket — the kind of clothes only good for scooting from the office over to the courthouse or the police station. This was not a winter kit. What was I thinking?

Cochrane was 70 miles away, about an hour's drive on Highways 67 and then 11. Highway 655, the shortcut to Cochrane, did not exist then. I settled in, lit the first of many cigarettes and went to turn on the radio. There was no radio. I wanted to know if anyone at CKGB Timmins was talking about any train wreck. There was nothing to listen to. 

Soon enough, I was in Cochrane, a major hub for Ontario Northland. There was lots of activity around the train station there. A work train was waiting along with workers bustling about. I found an official looking fellow and inquired about getting on the train so I could get photos and update my story. He directed me to another fellow at the back of the train, standing on the rear deck of the caboose. 

This fellow was a train bull, a railway cop. I told him I was a reporter from the Timmins newspaper and would like to ride along to the scene of the wreck. He looked down at me and shook his head slowly. He said there was no way Ontario Northland was going to allow a reporter on railway property.

I decided to call the newsroom in Timmins and have them check in with Wayne Antler in North Bay. He might give me permission. This meant using the payphone in the Cochrane station. I had to stand around at the payphone for several minutes waiting for a callback from Timmins. 

That's when I noticed the work train was leaving the station. I ran outside and hollered at the cop in the caboose, hoping to plead my case. Not a chance. He glared at me as the train pulled away. 

I had one other option. I had to drive. One of the train yard workers told me it wasn't too difficult. Drive west to Smooth Rock Falls and then head north on Highway 634. That was the plan. It was dark now and a storm was brewing. I had $20 for gas. I put $10 worth in and headed out. It didn't take long to get to Smooth Rock on Highway 11. Highway 634 was different. It was mostly a snow-packed gravel road, but the best part was that there was no one else on the road. By now the snow was blowing head on into the windshield in that hypnotizing blur when you can only see snowflakes reflecting from the headlights. 

I drove in the middle of the road because too much snow had been building up on the sides. There were no plows out that night. About an hour later I pulled into Fraserdale to see a tiny shack off to the side of the ONR tracks. It was the only place with lights on.

I went inside the see several fellows standing around a countertop and a desk. They were ONR employees. I said I had been hoping to catch a ride on the train. They said I had just missed it. They told me the wreck was about 10 miles up the track. I acted like I was actually supposed to be on the train but had the back luck of driving too slow. 

I wondered out loud if there was any other way to get up to the scene. The fellows in the shack weren't saying much. One of them mentioned he had a snowmobile, but he was not really offering anything. I pulled the $10 bill out of my pocket and said I would pay for his gas if he gave me a ride. It took a bit of convincing, but the fellow finally agreed.

We stepped outside and it was snowing harder. It wasn't too cold, but I hadn't counted on riding on an open snowmobile. Soon enough we were bouncing along beside the tracks heading north. I was miserable. Snow was everywhere. In my nose, in my mouth and rushing down the neck of my lousy winter coat. It might have been a 20 minute ride, but it felt like an hour. 

Soon enough, I could see lights way up ahead and an orange glow, low in the sky. There was a fire. The driver stopped the sled and said he didn't want to go any further. He said he might get trouble if he was seen. He promised to wait for me.

I got off to walk and my shoes were slipping everywhere. Snow was around my ankles. It was miserable. Seeing the fire spurred me on. I knew I would be getting some good photos. I was shooting with a medium format twin-lens RollieFlex, using 120 film. The camera was old but it still took amazing photos. I had a Honeywell flash gun attached to it with a bracket and a handle. I was confident of getting some nice photos.

As I got closer, I was overwhelmed by the smell of fuel oil. I would learn that a couple of tanker cars had derailed and one of them had burst open. There was a large ditch beside a section of track that was filled with the fuel oil, but it wasn't burning. I had been walking along the track, but at this point I stepped off into the deep snow and walked along the tree line, several metres from the track. I was wearing street shoes. It was hard. It was miserable. 

Further along the wreck, I saw several boxcars had also derailed and three or four of them were on their side. At least two of them were burning. A couple of workers noticed me, but said nothing, seeing that I was standing by the trees. I could hear several loud booms and bangs from the boxcars. One worker told me that it was canned food and small containers of motor oil that were exploding inside the burning boxcar.  

There was a rail car with a crane attached to it, working to lift the wreckage out of the way. The workers in the foreground were silhouetted by the flames in the background. I knew the pictures would be amazing. I had never covered a train wreck before. This was before Ontario had health and safety rules. No one said anything about needing a hard-hat or steel toed boots.

Soon enough I decided I had enough photos and decided to head out. I stuck to walking along the tree line long enough to put the wreck several metres behind me. Then I got out of the deep snow and began walking along the railway tracks.

I had walked maybe 30 or 40 metres when I barely noticed a dark figure standing on the tracks ahead of me. The snow was swirling. At first I thought it was the snowmobile guy. Then I realized it was the train cop. I stepped over the outside rail to walk past him. 

Suddenly, he lunged at me. He was trying to grab the camera.

I held onto the metal and plastic flash bracket with all the strength of a skinny 20-year-old. As the cop pushed into me, I fell back and landed on my butt in the snow. I got up quickly and ran. My frozen fist was still wrapped around the flash bracket handle. Yes!

But then my heart sank as I realized the bracket was broken and the camera was gone. 

I turned around and peered into the blowing snow. In the mists of time, I am not sure what was said. There was some shouting and then the cop was gone. 

Several minutes later, I heard a voice. It was the snowmobile guy. We didn't speak much. He took me back to the car at Fraserdale.

Three hours later and I was back in Timmins. I slogged my way up the stairs to the newsroom. There was no one else there. The only sound was the constant clattering of the newswire machine. I was exhausted. I was miserable and feeling like a failure. 

I began typing what I called notes and quotes onto several sheets of paper while everything was fresh in my mind. There was an old leather couch in the lunchroom. I stretched out and grabbed a few hours of sleep.

When I awoke, I knew it was morning. I could see traffic on the streets below as people were going to work. I went back to my desk to write the story. 

Soon enough, Greg arrived. He took off his coat and placed it in the managing editor's office and then went to sit down at the large city desk, a semi-circular table about 16 feet wide, covered with stacks of paper, film negatives, news releases, coffee cups and ashtrays. 

Greg wasn't at all surprised to find me there, after pulling an all-nighter in the newsroom. It was expected. 

When he asked about the status of the story, he got an earful. Greg didn't say much. He asked a few questions, took some notes.

"Where's the camera?"

"The cop has it."

"Where's the film?"

"Still in the camera," I said, suddenly aware I had made a rookie mistake of not unloading the film right away.

"Okay then write it up, write up everything that happened. Everything."

At that point I realized that even without photos, I still had a good story. I took a copy of the Ontario Northland news release and began pointing out the discrepancies from what I had witnessed. 

Sometime later, the publisher arrived at work. Greg and I went into his office and I told the entire story over again. 

Back at my desk, I continued to work on the story. I could see Greg was on the phone and was speaking loudly, but because my desk was at the back of the newsroom and other typewriters were clacking away, I didn't hear everything. 

He was on the phone with Ontario Northland. The conversation was heated.

It was almost 10:30 in the morning. Deadline came and went. I was pleased to find my story was to be on the front page.

Greg called me into his office. Ontario Northland said it was prepared to file trespassing charges against me. I didn't know what to say.

Greg said he told Ontario Northland that the newspaper would file assault charges and theft charges against the railway cop.  

They called it a draw and the railway agreed to return the camera. It arrived at the Timmins train station that afternoon. It had not been opened. The film was intact.

Yes! We had pictures! 

Eventually the paper hit the streets, I was disappointed to see my story was not the top story in the North as far as Canadian Press was concerned. A bigger story had happened in North Bay. A downtown medical office building had been levelled by a massive natural gas explosion that resulted in the deaths of nine people. Without a doubt it was a far more important story, especially since that type of explosion could happen anywhere.

Still I had a fresh story and wrote about it. But from that day on I would never forget that when I took photos I would be sure to take the film out of the camera to keep it safe.

Len Gillis is a Local Journalism Reporter at Sudbury.com, covering health care in Northern Ontario.




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About the Author: Len Gillis, local journalism initiative reporter

Len Gillis is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter at Sudbury.com covering health care in northeastern Ontario and the COVID-19 pandemic.
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