The Grand River Story of the Three Sisters

Every time I paddle through these magnificent columns,... people ask me about the story behind them. So here it is...

But first a "myth" smile for the day!

In 2008, a journalist doing a guided canoe trip with a local Paris canoe outfitter was told... the Three Sisters were started just before World War I, but due to lack of funds, never completed. So the published Star quote said :

"walked up a rail-trail to a lookout on one of four abutments of limestone pillars, part of an unfinished train bridge constructed before World War I."

Janice Bradbeer
Toronto Star

A very rare photo is of the Three Sisters with a bridge on top around 1940.

The true story of how the "Three Sisters" were birthed...

They were built around 1852. They were the pillars for the Great West Railway bridge over the Grand River. This was the the first railway to Paris, running from Niagara Falls. The inaugural trip was December 15, 1853... well before World War I.

A passenger on this inaugural run described the day..."It was a cold raw day, the track bed was nothing but mud... there was no station platform, and the mud was too deep to wade across."

"But there are two local stories that happen on the Three Sisters Rail Line worth noting...

Imagine that it is February 27, 1889... and you are sitting in the passenger coach of the St. Louis Express, one of the fastest trains on the Grand Trunk Railway. The steam locomotive is cruising at 50 mph. You have traveled this route before and are anticipating the upcoming magnificent views... one over the Three Sisters Bridge on the Grand... and the other over the St George Viaduct. As the train thunders into the viaduct, you are elevated 65ft above the winter countryside. Suddenly the coach starts shuddering like a "rudder board " road... and with the tearing of metal... you are plunging down.

What happen?
One of the main locomotive drive engine shafts broke, tearing loose a number of ties while the locomotive crossed over the viaduct. The rails spread apart and the engine ran for about 80 meters between the rails. It dragged the baggage car and smoker safely across, but the passenger car plowed up the loose ties. The sinking car caught on the support trestle and fell through. The dining car fell through next, cutting the passenger car in half upon impact.

The above photo is at the scene of the carnage.There were 70 passengers on the St Louis Express, 18 were killed and another 30 injured. Residents of St George rushed to the scene and local homes were used as hospitals and accomodations.

The second story is a "school-boy hero's' tale.

It is March 14, 1898, almost 11 years since the St George Viaduct accident. A mammoth ice jam near Galt gave way and a tremendous flash flood rushes down the Grand towards the Three Sisters.

Two boys on their way to school along the West River Road... James Telfer and C. Brown, both 15... notice the bridge. They are shocked when they realized the bridge abutment has broken away and the rails pulled apart. The boys ran over 3 kilometers to the Junction Station in Paris and warned the station-master just in time, preventing the scheduled freight train from crossing over.

This is a picture of the broken abutment belonging to the Three Sisters on the west bank. This was caused by the river flood. The torrent was so strong that it actually undermined the bridge abutment causing it to fall over and break off.

The bridge was repaired and the rail line continued to be used until competition from the more southern rail in Paris prevailed. After 1940 the line was closed and the bridge removed for World War II causes. And thus the end of the era.

But the Three Sisters still stand, and our rafting company has a picnic/takeout site in the shadow of these towering limestone giants. They never fail to awe people as they paddle between them.

This is the only picture known, showing a Steamer crossing the Three Sisters.

Below are some "tidbits" about the "Three Sisters Line"... (built by the Great West Railway, later becoming the Grand Trunk).

In their first year of business the Great West had 70 steam locomotives and 1,700 rolling stock. To travel 65 kilometers one steam engine would burn this equivalent amount of wood... a log 1 meter in diameter with a 3 meter length.

The ride was extremely alarming, the cars bumped and swayed almost off the rails. The English engineers built shallow rail-beds that had not accounted for the Canada's winter frost-heaving effect on the rails.Cows were a major threat. One train going 8-10 km/hr hit a herd of cows which derailed the engine, three cars and killed six people. Passengers not use to stepping off a moving train, often rolled onto the platforms or fell beneath the wheels.

And with the railway came the taverns. Paris within 5 years had 17 taverns to supply the 13,000 yearly travelers.Train departure/arrivals were bizarre... most of the station-towns used a sundial with a town bell for tracking the hour. In fact Paris was on the sundial until 1883. For news... locals use to jump on the train looking for newspapers left behind.

So you now know the story of how the Three Sisters arrived on the Grand. If wishing to paddle the route with the Three Sisters... visit this link.

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