Skip to main content

Sherbrooke to Honour Little-Known Railway Hero

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

--January 27, 2006

The City of Sherbrooke plans to commemorate Quebec-born railway hero William Bennett Best by erecting a framed picture and certificate at a Lennoxville community centre early in 2006 --- 112 years after Best led a daring train rescue in northern Minneosota.

But the man crusading to gain official recognition for Best still hopes to muster a historical marker with greater staying power. "A man of that calibre deserves more than a piece of paper," Jim Belknap remarked on learning the news of the pending memorial. "It's kind of cheap.

As reported in the July/August issue of Quebec Heritage News, Belknap has been waging a one-man campaign to preserve the memory of Best's deeds ever since he found a collection of the train engineer's personal papers while cleaning out an attic in Coaticook in the late 1990s.

A native of Lennoxville, Best was working for an American railroad in 1884 when he found himself guiding a passenger train through a raging forest fire. Against the protests of some of his colleagues, Best held his engine in the flame-swept town of Hinckley so that townspeople could squeeze aboard the train and escape to safety. Hundreds of lives were saved as a result.

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. He is buried in the Lennoxville cemetery.

Five years ago, Canada's Historical Sites and Monuments Board turned down Belknap's request to commemorate Best, saying that Best's heroics had made no lasting contribution to Canadian history. Attempts to interest other heritage authorities and institutions proved equally futile.

A Townships-based granite engraving company estimates that it would cost a little over $800 to embed Best's picture in stone, along with a brief text.

After the Quebec Anglophone Heritage Network (QAHN) took up Belknap's cause in June 2005, the City of Sherbrooke announced that Best's name would be given to the city's Toponymy Committee for use in naming new streets. A framed picture and a bilingual account of Best's actions are to be hung on a special wall at the Amadée Beaudoin Community Centre in Lennoxville on February 23, 2006 during the borough's annual achievement awards ceremony.