Finding the 694: 106 years after tragic crash, locomotive located in Lake Superior
Guided not just by the hands of operator Tom Crossmon, but also by the past efforts of an extended network of divers and the collective memory of a community, the remotely-operated vehicle descended into the depths of Lake Superior.
Dropping down a sheer rock cliff that plunges into the lake along a remote stretch of the northern Ontario shore, the ROV's camera and lights searched for its quarry: A wreck not seen since it happened 106 years ago. A wreck that claimed three lives. A wreck unlike any other in the Great Lakes.
Within about an hour on July 22, about 235 feet beneath the surface amid a jumble of massive boulders, Crossmon and his companions found what they were looking for. There, visible on a video screen aboard their 24-foot boat, was the wreckage not of some long-lost schooner or ill-fated freighter, but rather a railroad locomotive. Canadian Pacific Railway Locomotive 694, to be exact, which crashed into the lake from the cliffs above in a violent collision of metal and rock before sunrise on the morning of June 10, 1910.
The Township of Schreiber, Ontario, was founded in the 1880s as the Canadian Pacific Railway was constructed across northern Ontario along the rugged shore of Lake Superior — and the railway plays a central role in the community to this day.
The town, about 250 miles northeast of Duluth, is a crew change point for trains heading west toward Thunder Bay and east toward White River.
And so it was that in Schreiber on the night of June 9, 1910, a crew of three men — engineer Frank Wheatley, fireman E. Clark and brakeman J. McMillan — joined a freight train heading east, pulled by CPR 694. The 694 was a mighty D10 steam locomotive, just four years old.
During the night, and into the morning of June 10, the train crossed the Aguasabon River, and rounded the sinuous curves of Jackfish Bay. Not far east of what is now Neys Provincial Park, about 6 miles northwest of what is now the town of Marathon, the train approached Mink Harbor on Lake Superior.
"The main line at that location is right beside the lake but the lake level is about 65 feet ... below the level of the track," said Doug Stefurak of Schreiber, a retired CPR locomotive engineer.
With a rock face to their left and the lake far below to their right, the three-man crew of the 694 found themselves bearing down on a rockslide dead ahead, strewn across the rails. There was no way to avoid a crash.
McMillan apparently jumped from the train in a futile attempt to escape; his body was later found beside the tracks.
"The other two guys, the engineer and the fireman, they went over the embankment" and into the lake along with the 694, a tender car and at least two boxcars, Stefurak said. "The fireman's body was never recovered."
Stories of the crash
Out of sight but never out of mind, the 694 and its crew were well-remembered in Schreiber in the decades that followed. Engineers and crewmen who lived in the community passed the crash site on a regular basis, and passed the story on to younger generations.
"We heard about this accident when we were in our 20s, when we hired on the railway," said Stefurak, who joined CPR in 1968 and worked for the railway for 40 years, most of that time as a locomotive engineer. "It always fascinated me, and we used to go by that location pretty much every other day for years and years and years."
The memory of the crew also lived on through their families. Wheatley, the 38-year-old engineer, was buried in Thunder Bay beneath an elaborate gravestone carrying the logo of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers. Though he didn't have children, his siblings did.
Darryl McCrindle of Thunder Bay is the granddaughter of Wheatley's brother. Her grandfather died before she was born, but her father and his sisters shared the story of what had happened to her great-uncle.
"The family always knew about it, and everybody in the family talked about it," she recalled. "... That side of the family was a railroad family."
Back in Schreiber, interest in locating the 694 grew over the years — to provide some closure, and perhaps, if the engine somehow survived the crash in relatively good shape, to raise it.
"A small group of us decided a number of years ago to let's do what we can to possibly find this 694," Stefurak said. "We raised a few dollars, and got a few people interested, and here we are today."
The search begins
In 2013, longtime diver Terry Irvine of London, Ontario — who had been visiting wrecks along the Ontario shore of Lake Superior for a decade — heard about the 694. Intrigued, and with a general location where the crash happened, he and other divers returned in 2014 to try to find the locomotive.
"We did about three dives total, and on the third dive we found one of the two boxcars" at a depth of about 285 feet, he said. The group also found the front wheels — the "pony wheels" — of a locomotive, among other debris. The main body of the locomotive, however, eluded them.
Irvine, who has been diving wrecks for 30 years, said the accounts of what happened that night back in 1910 were never far from mind.
"When I dive on a wreck, I think about the story that the wreck is telling me," he said. "When we dove the train, we (thought) about that night ... when these unfortunate guys saw the rockslide and hit the brakes, but it was too late. How horrific that must have been, this thing going off the track and hitting that cold water and smashing its way to the bottom. ...
"You're not just diving on a piece of steel that has some wheels. You think about that story and kind of immerse yourself in the story."
The 2014 dives were covered by local media, and among the readers was McCrindle, the great-niece of the engineer.
"I was utterly shocked" to read about the crash, she recalled. "I had looked through the newspapers, I'd go to the library and go to the microfilm to see if I could find anything else over the years, but I hadn't — this is why I was so shocked when (I heard) they were going to go dive for it."
McCrindle reached out to those in Schreiber who had pushed for the search — who were equally surprised to hear from a family member of one of the crewmen.
Meanwhile, the divers vowed that the search for CPR 694 would continue.
The search continues
The dives of 2014 set a path that was picked up this summer by Crossmon, who lives in Hermantown and is a former captain of the St. Louis County Rescue Squad.
Crossmon is retired now, but — with his own boat, side-scan sonar and ROV — he's continued to work on-call to recover drowning victims across the region, when local agencies lack the resources to do so on their own.
He's also discovered that his equipment and expertise are well-suited for shipwreck hunting and exploration, and with more free time available he's pursued that hobby. His ROV, in particular, is useful when visiting wrecks.
"It's about the size of a shoebox, which is what makes it really wonderful for the shipwrecks because I can get in and out of places that the big ROVs can't," he said.
And so it was that he was in northern Ontario in the summer of 2015, to explore the well-known wrecks of the yacht Gunilda and freighter Judge Hart, when he heard about the 694 and was intrigued by the idea of a locomotive deep beneath the surface of the big lake.
After doing research last winter, and reading about Irvine's efforts, Crossmon made the trek north again last month. Crossmon was given the coordinates of the boxcar and wheels found in 2014.
That made for quick work once Crossmon and the others who joined him reached the site. The jumbled rock made it difficult to pick up anything on sonar, but the ROV had no such trouble searching along the cliff far beneath the surface.
"Two-hundred feet away (from the boxcar) was the locomotive, kind of tucked in on that rock face. ... it just blended in among the vehicle-size boulders that were there," Crossmon said. "It's pretty broken up. The wheels are still all connected to the drive arms, but it's pretty damaged. ... It was pretty short work for something that had been missing so long. But the advantage I had was my bottom is unlimited with the ROV, and that's the struggle that Terry and those guys had — they might have 20 minutes of bottom time, so their search time is just so much shorter."
With more time, Crossmon said, he thinks the divers would have located the locomotive. Irvine, in turn, said Crossmon's efforts were vital because of how the wreck blends into the jumbled rocks and may have been easily overlooked by divers.
In total, "it was a great effort by everybody — there was a lot of camaraderie to pull it together," Irvine said.
Stefurak was in Winnipeg, returning from a hockey tournament in California, when he received the call that the 694 had been found.
"I was elated — and also very emotional about it. ... I was really glad they found it," he recalled. When video from the wreck site was posted online, "I think the first time I saw that, I had tears in my eyes — that's how much it means to me."
While the wreckage had been found, there's still some more-detailed work to be done.
There was no writing visible on the locomotive, and Crossmon said he didn't want to disturb the wreck in any way on that first visit. While there's no doubt it's the 694 — there's no record of another locomotive going into the lake in that spot — there's a desire to find the builder's plate that would provide definitive identification.
And while the locomotive itself probably is too damaged to be raised, the recovery of certain items — if authorities grant permission — would be meaningful to the community, Stefurak said.
"There's a few artifacts there that this township, here in Schreiber, ought to have — the bell, or the steam whistle," he said. "The crew left here — that was three crew members from Schreiber, who left here and died. So whatever they can bring up ... ought to come back to the rail museum here in Schreiber."
The bell wasn't in its mount when the ROV passed that spot last month, Crossmon said. It's hoped that further exploration will locate the bell nearby. Irvine, Crossmon and others plan to visit the locomotive again this week.
There's also been talk of building a large replica of CPR 694 for display in Schreiber. Stefurak said the story of the locomotive is important for the era it represents, before the Trans-Canada Highway, when the Canadian Pacific Railway — and that remote stretch of track by Mink Harbor — was a vital link for moving not just freight, but people, too.
"At the time, the only way people got across the country was on that railway. All the soldiers that went to World War I, went through here on the train — this was the only way," he said. "It's a piece of Canadian history"
Crossmon and Irvine said they're glad to be able to give back to a community that has kept the story of the 694 alive.
"A lot of times these things just get forgotten, but it's very much a railroad community up there, and to see that interest was really cool," Crossmon said.
"It is a thrill," Irvine said. "We're now a footnote in that train's history, we're part of the history of that wreck now, which is pretty cool."
Could it happen again?
Canadian Pacific trains still use the line where the crash of CPR 694 took place. What’s to prevent a similar tragedy from happening?
Decades ago, Doug Stefurak said, the railroad used to employ rock watchmen who would walk the section of track, day and night, monitoring for fallen boulders.
In the late 1960s, the railroad installed rock fences with wires that, if broken by a rockslide, would automatically trigger “stop” signals down the line to alert any approaching trains.
It takes a team to locate a wreck
Tom Crossmon and Terry Irvine both make a point of noting that finding and exploring a wreck is far from a solo effort — it takes the cooperation of a lot of different people in the water, on the boat and on land.
Others involved in locating CPR 694 included:
- Summer 2014 — Irvine, Greg Hilliard, Allisha Hilliard, Dave Ferguson and Jeff Shirk.
- July 2016 — Crossmon, Ron Benson, Todd Janquart, Dave Schlenker and Mac Schlenker.
Crossmon, Irvine, Dave Schlenker, Greg Hilliard, Allisha Hilliard, Ferguson and Benson are planning to head back to the wreck this week, joined by Shane Cook, Blair Mott and Ron Waxman. Ferguson has arranged to have an official Explorers Club flag accompany the expedition.
They’ve all been assisted by Beverly and Paul Turpin of Discovery Charters in Rossport, Ontario; historian and retired locomotive engineer Doug Stefurak of Schreiber, Ontario; and Schreiber Councilor Bob Krause.
Find another video of the CPR 694 wreck here.