By Barry Conway

Carson Lake — Frank Burchat, a local Barry’s Bay man with a unique love of local history, got all choked up last Wednesday just as he was about to unveil a plaque in the middle of nowhere. It was dedicated to a young railroader few people have ever heard of.  It was understandable.

Frank has been coming to Carson Lake since his parents built a cottage there 62 years ago. It’s where he built his own retirement home over 20 years ago.

But last Wednesday, he was standing pretty much in the proverbial wilderness and yet there were 25 people happily there with him. He had invited them to a very unique ceremony he had organized on a lonely stretch of the old Ottawa, Arnprior and Parry Sound railroad bed, just north of where he now lives along Carson Lake. They were all there to pay respects to someone who had died there 114 years ago to the day, at exactly 9:15 p.m. Monday, August 16th, 1909.

Frank Burchat was there to unveil a plaque he paid for himself and that he and his friends were placing in that wilderness to remind anyone with even a passing interest to remember a young 20-year-old man who had been killed on that stretch of shoreline a very long time ago.

It happened, as the Ottawa Citizen explained back in 1909, when a mixed, westbound Grand Trunk Railway train was suddenly derailed after hitting ‘a washout’ along the tracks.

“The engine, tender and four cars loaded with merchandise and two empties left the track, and rolled down an embankment near the lake,” wrote the Citizen. “Luckily, the passenger cars did not leave the rails, and all passengers escaped unhurt. But the engine’s fireman, 20-year-old William J. Thurston of Madawaska, could not be found.

“At last, he was found,” added the newspaper, “under a car, crushed to death.”

Among the 25 people gathered together last Wednesday at the very spot where Mr. Thurston died were eight members of his extended family: Debra Thurston-Prescott, a great niece; Barbara Thurston-Silke, another great niece; Kevin Thurston, a great nephew; Doug Thurston, a nephew, Norma Thurston-Lewis, a niece; Margaret Thurston-Kranz, a niece; Hugh Thurston and Christine Kranz.

Despite William’s death that day, three of his brothers would go on to become railroad station agents working throughout eastern Ontario. His younger brother, Albert, would become station agent at Killaloe, Wilno, Barry’s Bay and even the Thurston’s own hometown of Madawaska. Brother Hugh would end up as station agent in Pembroke.

In fact, William’s youngest brother, John, only seven years old when his older brother was killed, would grow up to become station agent in Killaloe and then hold the same job in Barry’s Bay from 1958 to about 1965. His daughter, Norma Thurston-Lewis, remembers living upstairs at the old Barry’s Bay Station before graduating from the village high school in 1964.  

Yet, most people have forgotten the men and women who made that old 19th and 20th Century railroad work and that once connected Eganville, Golden Lake, Killaloe, Wilno, Barry’s Bay, Madawaska and Whitney.

Most have certainly never heard of that deadly accident 114 years ago this month.  

Then, along comes Frank Burchat. He knew the original 1909 washout was easy to explain. It was due, said the newspaper of the day, “to a cloud burst which wrought havoc to crops and railway lines in the district; it washed away the ballast along the GTR line at different points. It was one of the heaviest rains in many years in the district.”

Yet, in only a matter of days, the mess left by that 1909 derailment was cleaned up, the tracks repaired, and life pretty much went back to what passed for normal for most people.

But even before Frank retired to the area, that accident was not something he could forget. Nearly 50 years ago, he had heard ‘the persistent rumour,’ as he called it: That the steam engine and two flat-bed cars that had killed William J. Thurston were still deep down in Carson Lake, having been spotted there in the 1960s or ’70s by two reputable German scuba divers, some 85 feet below the surface.   

Frank, also a certified scuba diver, decided to go look-see, as did Pat Flynn, another certified diver and one of Frank’s Carson Lake neighbours. So too did a number of other area friends who happened to be divers. Over the years, all worked their way down into the surprisingly cold and darkling depths of Carson Lake, but they could find nothing.

“It’s cold, you can’t see your hand in front of your face, yet looking up it is surprisingly clear,” said Pat Flynn of the time he went looking into the black water of Carson Lake.

Still, Frank was not about to give up. Six years ago, he got others to pitch in including Wendy Wolak, the president of the Carson, Trout, Lepine and Greenan Lake Association. She’s also another history buff and so she contacted a well-known railroad historian, Colin Churcher, who uncovered some new facts.

He discovered that on August 16th, 1909, a torrent of rain had come rushing down a steep hillside and had undermined nearly a mile of track near Carson Lake. The mixed train had tried to ditch itself in hopes of avoiding any real damage. Mr. Churcher also found out that another eastbound train had passed less than an hour prior to the accident but saw no washout. Mr. Churcher was doubtful that the steam engine and box cars would have been left in the lake, as they would be too valuable. He suggested that the railroad of the day would certainly have had the technology to retrieve any sunken rolling stock.

Frank then stumbled across another derailment less than a mile away. It had occurred January 21st, 1897, and killed three other OA & PS railroad employees. Despite such awful tragedies, there isn’t even a ‘Wreck of the old’ whatever song to commemorate either accident.

Still, others continued to step forward and confirm the story of an old steam engine sunk deep below Carson Lake. Wade Parsons, whose parents used to own Pleasure Point Resort near Carson Lake, being one. Then there was Nancy George, who still resides at Carson Lake; she was pretty certain those German scuba divers had brought up some train artifacts, namely a metal teapot and some railroad cutlery. 

Dorthey Wilson then stepped forward and said she had located William J. Thurston’s tombstone. It was in Madawaska and soon a gaggle of Frank’s friends and relatives headed off, along with Frank, to not only verify that fact, but, more importantly, to carefully clean up the grave site and tombstone. Others quickly threw in on the hunt, as if they were hell-bent to find the Holy Grail, or that even more mythical treasure on Oak Island, or whatever in tarnation, Frank was on about. They included Ted, Cathy and Grant Grzywniak, Brian Moore, Debbie Donaldson, Jakob Kachel and Kris Totosko.

Almost miraculously, next came the OPP’s Search and Recovery Unitt who were in the area working on another case and decided they could use the mystery of the old train to newly train some of their new scuba team. 

Enter OPP Sgt. Michael Coo and Constables Jenny Brown, Matt Duquette and Brian Kielman. They were based in Gravenhurst and though their main area of operation is major crime, weapons recovery and missing persons, somehow, Frank Burchat bamboozled them into bringing along their Side-Scan Sonar and a Remote Operated Vehicle that can dive to 500 feet, to say little of a drone that was used to fly over much of Carson Lake.

After that, came the Gignac Dive Team — Wayne Gignac and his daughter, Samantha, who are both advanced dive instructors. They too slipped into the cold Carson Lake water, recorded at 4°C at 140 feet. At 100 feet. scuba divers are limited to only 20 minutes due to blood nitrogen level issues that can lead to ‘the bends.’ They pushed the envelope as best they could, but no luck.

“They didn’t find anything either,” said Frank before finally concluding only last week, “there is no train in the water.”

That may be so, but thanks to Frank Burchat’s relentless pursuit, hundreds of people now know the name of William J. Thurston and something of his tragic history. Or as Margaret Thurston-Kranz eloquently put it at the end of last Wednesday’s dignified ceremony smack-dab in the middle of nowhere: “My dad was very family oriented; he would have loved this.”

Frank Burchat may be a lot of things but he’s certainly a very good friend of Billy Thurston.