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Manitoba History: The Uno Railway Disaster

by Leslie S. Kozma
Edmonton, Alberta

Number 74, Winter 2014

On the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway (GTPR) main line between Winnipeg and Melville, Saskatchewan, there were once four major timber bridges. This was unusual because most of the larger bridges on the line were built of concrete and steel; the GTPR believed in constructing its line to the highest standards right from the beginning, rather than building cheaply to meet initial traffic demands and then making improvements later.

Situated between the Miniota and Uno stations in western Manitoba, the bridge over Minnewashta Creek became known as the Uno Bridge. Comprised of a 107-bent pile and frame trestle, it measured 1,573 feet long and 115 feet at its highest. The bridge was constructed in 1907 at a cost of $56,947.

At two o’clock in the morning of 2 September 1915, a tornado knocked down most of the timber trestle. By 2:30 AM, the storm was still intense and there was heavy rain as an eastbound freight train approached the bridge. There was no warning of the impending disaster. As the Manitoba Free Press reported the following day, engineer J. C. Files saw the bridge ahead had disappeared but stayed in the engine in hopes of stopping the train. He went over the edge with his engine, tender, and one car. The couplers broke so the rest of the train remained on the track. Fireman Hugh McKay waited until the last minute and jumped just before the engine went over the brink. Files perished; McKay survived with only minor injuries.

View of the former Uno Bridge taken shortly after its destruction, with the derailed locomotive tender in the foreground.
Source: Lecia Bourne

This was the GTPR main line so it was essential that train service be restored as soon as possible. The timing was bad as the fall grain rush was coming into full swing. In a magnanimous gesture by its rival, the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), GTPR passenger and freight trains were permitted to detour over CPR lines. GTPR trains travelled from Melville up the GTPR’s Canora Branch to Yorkton, where they transferred to CPR trackage, running to Portage la Prairie, where they reverted back to GTPR tracks on the run into Winnipeg.

Restoring the bridge, the next priority, was organized by GTPR Engineer H. A. Woods. Gangs of men were assembled and brought to the site from Winnipeg, Melville, and Edmonton. An emergency supply of timber—lots of it—was stored at Rivers, 42.5 miles to the southeast.

The trestle was rebuilt in kind, using the existing piles and the emergency supply of timber. Train service over the new trestle was restored on 27 September, slightly over three weeks later. However, engineers were instructed to travel slowly across the new bridge until full use was restored on 12 October. Considering how thoroughly the original bridge was destroyed, reconstruction in such a short period of time was considered an engineering miracle.

Eventually, the GTPR failed to meet its financial obligations and, in 1923, it was absorbed into the Canadian National Railways. The rebuilt Uno Bridge over Minnewashta Creek stood until 1929, when it was replaced by a steel viaduct, still in use today.

Railway service was restored over the Uno Bridge within three weeks of its destruction by a tornado. Here a GTPR passenger train crossed the reconstructed bridge on 12 October 1915.
Source: Lawrence & Meers, Birtle, Les Kozma Collection

See also:

Historic Sites of Manitoba: Canadian National Railway Main Line Bridge (Minnewashta Creek, Municipality of Prairie View)

Page revised: 26 December 2018

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