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Quebec Rail Hero Snubbed by History Gains Latter-day Ally

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large_best.train2_.jpg--August 30, 2005

Two scrapbooks salvaged from the junk heap have launched a Quebec man on a personal crusade to honour a forgotten Canadian hero. Jim Belknap, a self-described history buff and part-time geneaologist from Dixville in the Eastern Townships, says he’s downright steamed by Canada’s indifference toward William Bennett Best. “Compared to a lot of people who get honoured, I think he’s a hero,” Belknap said. “He saved the lives of 500 people. He was a Canadian and a Quebecer.”

A native of Lennoxville, Best was working as an engineer on an American railroad when he was hurled to fame in 1894 for his part in a daring train rescue in the northern Minnesota town of Hinckley. Against the protests of some of his colleagues, Best held his engine in the middle of a raging forest fire so that townspeople could squeeze aboard the train and escape to safety.

Best later returned to Canada where he rose to prominence in Winnipeg as a trade-union leader, serving as General Chairman of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers. He moved back to Quebec when he retired, living in Coaticook until his death in 1934.

Descendants of people Best saved from the so-called Great Hinckley Fire have not forgotten his name. The northern Minnesota town has a museum that tells about the fire and the brave deeds of Best and his fellow trainmen. There’s even a street named after him. But in Canada he is virtually unknown.

Belknap himself never heard of Best until he stumbled onto a pair of tattered ledger books while cleaning out an elderly woman’s attic in Coaticook in the late 1990s. “It’s a wonder that all this stuff didn’t get pitched before,” Belknap said, carefully leafing through page after page of newspaper clippings, railroad passes, photographs and personal mementos dating from the 1890s to the 1930s.

After years of research, Belknap suspects that Best’s notoriety as a union leader probably overshadowed his role at the throttle of the Minnesota mercy train. “What we are working for,” Best told a Winnipeg newspaper in the early 1900s, “is the recognition of the fact that railwaymen are humans, that they require rest, sleep and a chance to eat like other people, and we are going to keep on demanding it until we get it.”

Correspondence found in his papers suggests that Best was a friend and admirer of American Socialist Party leader and presidential candidate Eugene Debs, who began his political career with the U.S. Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen.

Belknap has tried in vain for years to gain some sort of official recognition for Best. In 2000, Canada’s Historical Sites and Monuments Board turned down his request to have a commemorative plaque erected in his honour for lack of evidence that his actions made any lasting contribution to Canadian history.

The Quebec Anglophone Heritage Network recently took up Belknap’s cause by asking the City of Sherbrooke to honour Best by naming a street after him or by erecting a suitable marker in the city’s Lennoxville borough.

As for the scrapbooks, Belknap believes they’re of important historical value and he’s determined to hang onto them until he’s satisfied that Best’s story won’t end up locked away in an attic for another fifty years. “If I can get recognition for him,” Belknap said, “I’ll turn over all this stuff to the Railway Museum.”