The idea that the locomotive at the centre of Canada’s worst railway disaster in 150 years was to be sold at an auction to the highest bidder struck many as news that was too macabre, too soon.
Police finally blocked any sale of the engine while trials for criminal negligence are pending for three former employees of the now-defunct Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, but the brief outrage raised a question: Just what is to be done with an object like the Lac-Mégantic locomotive, a machine intimately linked to tragedy that will almost certainly have historical value down the road?
From the sinking of the Titanic and the Halifax Explosion to 9/11 and beyond, curators have faced the same dilemma: How to preserve artifacts from events that are both historic and human tragedy, without being accused of capitalizing on suffering or even grave-robbing?
A couple hundred kilometres from Lac-Mégantic, in a Montreal suburb, Exporail, the Canadian Railway Museum, would seem to be a natural home for artifacts from one of Canada’s biggest railway disasters. The museum has two gigantic hangars filled with 150 years of locomotives and rolling stock.
The mere suggestion causes obvious discomfort for the volunteer board and curators who run the museum. “It’s extremely delicate,” said Bruno Cordellier, a spokesman for Exporail. “The locomotive is not on the list we would preserve. There is a committee of collections. And if something happened, if it were offered to us, it would have to be reviewed, and possibly accepted. But it’s not on the radar.”
Built in 1979 for the Burlington Northern Railroad, Locomotive 5017 is a diesel-electric built by General Electric Transportation Systems. On the night of the Lac-Mégantic crash, an engine fire and subsequent shutdown by firefighters caused an air brake system to let go. A system of manual parking brakes should have held the train still. Instead, the runaway train rolled downhill into the town with a cargo of explosive crude oil and crashed, killing 47.
Key pieces of the train are missing. Parts were seized by the Sûreté du Québec police force in the criminal investigation and the Transportation Safety Board for its crash investigation. Before the locomotive was pulled from auction, the initial bid for the train was set at $10,000. Experts suggested the locomotive could as easily end up in a scrapyard as with another railway.
The one ingredient that often diminishes the radioactivity of such potential museum pieces is the passage of time.
“With time, a lot of feelings – the strength of feelings – kind of dies,” said Lynn-Marie Richard, acting curator at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax. The museum houses flotsam that came from the wreck of the Titanic along with artifacts from the Halifax Explosion that levelled the city in 1917.
However, not every artifact loses toxicity with the years. Salvage operations on Titanic wreckage by a private U.S. company provoked anger. Many preservationists believe the site is a graveyard for the more than 1,500 people who died in the disaster in 1912, and say it should have been left alone.
The Maritime Museum took a strong position against the salvage operation, saying it would not display any of the newly recovered pieces. Its own Titanic artifacts were recovered floating at the scene at the time of rescue and salvage efforts in 1912. “We followed our code of ethics, and that does not allow us to take exhibits taken from the wreck,” Ms. Richard said.
The museum’s other popular exhibit is from the Halifax Explosion that killed 2,000 people when two ships, including one carrying munitions, collided in the city’s harbour. It is a better illustration of how the passage of time can calm sensitivities.
In 1987, the museum was presented with a collection of mortuary bags from the explosion. The small canvas satchels contained the personal effects of the unidentified victims of the explosion and they were found sitting in boxes in the basement of Halifax City Hall.