After spending my first three months with The Chronicle Herald in Truro, learning the routines of running a news bureau, I became the paper’s Pictou County bureau chief two days before Christmas in 1959. It was a great Yuletide gift.
My prime responsibilities were to cover any and all news happenings in the region – accidents, fires, murders, court proceedings, political matters, whatever. Of course it didn’t take me long to learn how to work sports events into my schedule too.
I was recalling those things one day recently when I was browsing through some old scrapbooks. Just six weeks into what turned into a 10-year stay in the New Glasgow-based job, I had my first real test on how to juggle news and sports.
It was mid-February and, for three days, I had been spending long hours at the Bluenose Curling Club. It was my first experience reporting a provincial curling championship, it being the Nova Scotia Branch Junior curling bonspiel. Twenty-three teams were entered, including local representatives from New Glasgow, Pictou and Westville.
The prize for the winning team would be a beautiful trophy that was on display throughout the week, well guarded by two veteran New Glasgow curlers, Gerry Bauld, president of the Nova Scotia Branch of the Royal Canadian Curling Club, and R.B. Stewart, the provincial representative to the Dominion Curling Association.
I was lucky. Nothing much was happening on the news front, so I spent most of my days and evenings watching the young curlers doing their thing. By the end of the fourth day, semi-finalists had been determined.
On the Thursday afternoon, I watched as an undefeated Sydney foursome, skipped by 21-year-old Herbie MacNeil, defeated Mayflower’s Dannie Franklyn 11-5 in the semi-final. I went home where my office was located and filed my story for the next day – on a big, noisy machine called a teletype.
I had just completed sending my article when my phone rang. It was one of the editors in the newsroom in Halifax. I still remember the message these 56 years later: “Get down to Pomquet as fast as you can, there’s been a major train crash.”
I grabbed my camera – remember those big box-shaped monstrosities with an attachment for flash bulbs that used to be in the movies? — and picked up my bulky tape recorder and notebook, and headed east, as fast as my Plymouth would go on that windy old road towards Antigonish.
Pomquet was a small community 10 miles east of the cathedral town. I knew the crash must have happened on the “main line.” It occurred about six o’clock, according to a nearby resident I talked to at the scene. He heard the crash just as the supper hour news was coming on.
It was almost 7:30 when I reached the scene – easy to find in the dark because of the flames. It was a bad one, the initial conclusion I reached as I parked and ran towards the wreck.
Two CNR freight trains had crashed. Four diesel engines and 20 of the 95 cars involved were piled in a mass of twisted steel which continued to burn for hours. The worst news was that three crewmen were killed – and I quickly found out they were from Pictou County.
The photos I got that evening were among the most dramatic I got in my decade of chasing news stories during my New Glasgow years.
Besides the details of the accident, I was able to interview the Pomquet resident who heard the crash. He told me, “All of a sudden I heard such a crash that I almost jumped two feet out of my chair.” It was a terrible accident, and it was a terrible story with a Pictou County involvement.
The three victims were Stellarton residents.
Six hours after filing my curling story from home, I was on the phone from Pomquet dictating my crash story. The Herald had made arrangements to have my film picked up at the crash site and the photos were in the next morning’s paper.
The next morning? I was back at the curling club covering the junior showdown between Sydney and a Dartmouth rink skipped by Avery Jackson. The MacNeil rink only had to win once to become champions.
The unbeaten Sydney foursome had a battle on its hands. Dartmouth played tough. At the end of nine ends, it was tied 4-4. Then the Cape Bretoners scored singles in the 10th and 11th ends for a 6-4 victory. The champions grouped around the trophy to have their pictures taken.
My curling photo appeared in the Herald on the same day I went to Stellarton for the start of a different kind of series – the three funerals that attracted packed churches as the community paid final respects to three fine men.
A young reporter, not long on the job, had learned how good things and bad things make the news.
That same year, I covered another head-on train crash, this time on the outskirts of Stellarton on a Sunday morning. This time there were no fatalities.
Months later, also on a Sunday morning, I rushed to Pictou after an explosion turned an entire business block into a burning inferno within seconds. Thirteen businesses and offices were wiped out on Front Street. It wasn’t long after an earlier major fire levelled a different business block in what was being called the “hard-luck harbour town.”
The Chronicle Herald didn’t run colour photos then, so my picture of the Pictou blaze was published on the front page – with red ink.
Mixed in with the train wrecks and fires on my agenda that year were many baseball, softball and hockey contests, championships won and lost, scoring feats and well-pitched games creating excitement. Fun things to report.
No wonder I made sure sports were a part of my work.