Swept Away – The Steam Engine Driver

Back in 1913, railways in the mid-north were integral to life in South Australia and were in full swing.

This is a story of an accident that happened back then in a locality called Fords, north of Adelaide. A flash flood washed a goods train heading to Kapunda off the tracks and the driver, William Critchley, was swept away. We owe it to his memory to recount the story here. Scroll down to the end of the article for the full video on YouTube.

Just after half past 5 in the afternoon on the 13th of February 1913, a huge storm passed over the Light region, dumping around 60mm of rain in 35 minutes. The nearby township of Kapunda was inundated. Road surfaces were washed away as they became rivers and flash floods filled the normally dry creek beds. This isn’t a place that is considered to be in danger of flooding. It seems surreal when you know the area.

The accident happened close to Fords Station on a six to eight feet high embankment with a small culvert for the usually dry creek underneath. The freak summer storm had dumped incredible amounts of water that built up against the embankment and the sheer volume of water rushing over the line washed away most of the ballast. The line gave way just as the train crossed it – creating havoc with all but the last few carriages.

There are two stories about the men who witnessed the accident. Following the storm, a Granger Clancy and a Mr Moore set off on their tricycles to look for damage on their section of the line. They’d reached the eastern end of the section where floodwaters roared over the line when without warning the rails gave way and their trikes were overturned – tipping them into knee deep water. Another report had the men setting off from Fords when they ran into the back of the stopped train.

The newspaper stories are confusing but the men saw the goods train bound for Kapunda rounding the corner from the other side of the broken line. They tried frantically to warn the driver, but it was too late and they watched helplessly as the train toppled onto its side and slid down the embankment. In both reports, word was sent to Kapunda and a relief party formed.

The guard, a Mr C Sheldon, who was in the last carriage of the train and had heard the whistle to apply the emergency brakes – was jostled but unharmed and rushed down to the wreckage. Not seeing the driver or fireman, he ran down the stream some distance to try and find them. On his return he found Mr Whaites stumbling across the wreckage. Reports say Mr Sheldon walked back to alert the station at Freeling before the passenger train came down the line.

The relief party included an Inspector of traffic, Mr Gordon, who said he had never seen such a sight on his way from Morgan to Kapunda. “The whole country was one mass of water” he said, “but fortunately we got through without mishap.” The full extent of the accident could not be gauged by the light of the setting moon. By then the waters had subsided back into their natural course but the mud and debris left an awful scene. The engine was lying fully on its side, awash with slush and slime. The wagons behind it had piled on top of each other. One 22-foot wagon stood straight in the air, supported by an overturned 18-foot wagon.

Search parties were sent out for Mr Critchley and they searched all night. There was no sign of him.

Mr Whaites was hatless and bruised but uninjured. He had said that the train left Freeling soon after 6 o’clock and not far out of the station they had run through one body of water safely. Once they reached the second, they kept a good lookout but didn’t think it necessary to stop altogether. Suddenly, they felt the engine going and with only the width of the embankment they knew there was little hope. As soon as Mr Critchley felt the engine drop, he exclaimed “Good God, the line is gone” to Mr Whaites. In a few seconds they were over and into the water and scrambling for their lives. He told interviewers, “When she rested on her side I climbed out, and my mate followed me. The water was up to my waist, and when I got my footing. I looked for the driver to see if he was all right. As he got out he seemed to sink on his knees, and before it was possible to do anything the water carried him away. One good Samaritan gave me a pair of dungarees, and another a coat, and I feel pretty right now, although it was a bad experience.”

It wasn’t until daylight that the true scale of the accident was revealed, and a search party was resumed to find Mr Critchley’s body. Searchers found his water bag and toolbox a quarter of a mile away down the creek but still there was no trace of Mr Critchley. Later that day, Mr J Mitchell, a farmer near Linwood, was inspecting flood damage in the Light River and was shocked to find a body hanging in a tree. Mr Critchley had suffered severe injuries as he was swept miles downstream from the accident site and it’s likely he died of drowning or hypothermia.

A new track was established across the embankment within twenty-four hours. It took just three days for the cargo and broken trucks to be hauled away and the engine to be jacked back up onto the line. A week later, there was almost nothing to show such a terrible accident had occurred. The railways rolled on.

Sometimes there’s only specks of information remaining about an event, especially over a hundred years later. Sometimes there’s even more than one story. Among all the stories, I wondered who Mr Critchley actually was. William Critchley was well known as one of the most careful and competent drivers on the railways and had been driving steam engines on the mid north lines for many years. After emigrating from England in the 1860s, he grew up in Kadina and lived in Wallaroo and Gladstone. He was 52 at the time of the accident and lived in the Adelaide suburb of Prospect. He left behind a widow and 12 children – one of his sons worked on the railway at Goolwa. His railway career began in February 1885 as a cleaner and he went through the usual stages to the position of engine man – he was appointed driver at Port Pirie in 1907. His funeral was a lengthy and well attended event and he was laid to rest at West Terrace cemetery.

This is my way of presenting history differently – to try to preserve the memories of these events and people – hopefully for another hundred years. All we are left with of this history is a few tiny windows – usually in the form of scanned archives. We’ll never get all the detail ever again and just have to piece together what little we can find.

Click here for more rail history from Outdoorstype.

Image credits:

Railway accident at Fords [PRG 28017229]

Railway accident, Fords [B 10166]


Observer (Adelaide, SA : 1905 – 1931), 1913, ‘Driver Critchley Drowned’, Page 39 https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/163094271

The Register (Adelaide, SA : 1901 – 1929), 1913, ‘Driver Critchley Drowned’, Page 15


Kalgoorlie Western Argus (WA : 1896 – 1916), 1913, ‘Flood Near Kapunda’, Page 34


The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), 1913, Kapunda Railway Accident, page 10


The Journal (Adelaide, SA : 1912 – 1923), 1913, ‘Engine Driver Missing’, page 4


The Express and Telegraph (Adelaide, SA : 1867 – 1922), 1913, ‘The Missing Engine Driver’, Page 1


Barrier Miner (Broken Hill, NSW : 1888 – 1954), 1913, ‘Personal’, Page 2


2 thoughts on “Swept Away – The Steam Engine Driver

  1. Julie McDonald Reply

    Thank you for this article. You’re so right about history leaving behind mere windows into the past.
    I’m currently photographing remaining (Aug 2023) rail stations and rail corridors in the Mid-North of SA. To record what’s there.

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