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Prince Edward Island is known for many different things; It is the Birthplace of Confederation, the farmland of Canada, and the home of Canada’s red-headed heroine. When Prince Edward Island first decided to join Canada, it was because the Island fell in debt paying for its rail system .

Introduction

Prince Edward Island was surveyed and divided by Samuel Holland in order to distribute the island to landlords in Europe.  Prince Edward Island first got its main rail system in 1875 and the dept of the rail is one of the main reasons Prince Edward Island agreed to be a part of Canada[1].  Construction of extensions and modifications continued on for many years. The construction of railroads was a big ordeal on the island. During the Great War, ninety German prisoners helped build a section of the rail in Summerside[2]. They were housed in a rink and paid twenty cents a day[2]. In one of Prince Edward Island’s neighbouring provinces, Nova Scotia, there was a volunteer military company dedicated to the construction and maintenance of rails[3]. The branch was formed mostly of African-Canadian citizens as other regiments simply would not allow them to join on no other account than racism [3].

The story in this post happened in Lot 33, just on the outer edge of the provincial capital, the city of Charlottetown[4]. As part of a class project on early transportation history in Charlottetown, I researched the Sherwood Cemetery in Charlottetown to ensure all my curiosities about funeral trains and cemeteries in Prince Edward Island. 

Funeral Practices

The burying of the dead was a very serious business back in the day. Everyone on the island belonged to a religion and cared about all the customs. In particular, the Acadians of the Island were very particular with their funerals. As they were always tight-knit communities, their funerals were especially big. The Acadians were also very superstitious. For example, they made sure everything in the final room for the dying was useful and practical. They did not like vanity, also the dead would have to be laid in clothes made by the household. When it rained on the day of a funeral, they took it as a sign that they have the glory of God and are in a better place[5]. Every denomination had different ceremonies and procedures to care for their dead. For example, in England, the coffin was most often not visible as it would  overly upset the mourners[6]. In Scotland, women were more likely to be the ones to take care and prepare the dead for their burial, yet weren’t permitted to attend[6].

In today’s society the hearse is the most commonly used vehicle for the last journey of the deceased. The sleek, black, automobiles are very recognizable with their odd back and large door. Sometimes they have little purple flags on the front to identify them, and you hardly ever see them outside of a procession with their four-way flashers on in the broad daylight. It might come as a surprise that coffins were often transported by rail. Yes, this is true for Prince Edward Island in the late 1800s, and one of the Cemeteries included The Sherwood Cemetery in Charlottetown. This essay will explore the history of burial and transportation using the example of Sherwood Cemetery and the Prince Edward Island Railroad. This essay will  also describe how these practices and this cemetery evolved into the customs more commonly known today. 

If you think about it, the journey of a train can be compared to our journey in life. It is not an easy path, and eventually we all end up at the same station of death. Please enjoy the poem by Charles Tillman, about just that. 


Life’s a Railroad to Heaven [7]

Life is like a mountain railroad, 

With an engineer that’s brave;

We must make the run successful

From cradle to the grave,

Watch the curves, the fills, the tunnels,

Never falter, never quail, 

Keep your hand upon the throttle,

Keep your eye upon the rail.

You will roll up grades of trial,

You will cross the bridge with strife-

See that christ is your conductor

On the lightning trail of life;

Always mindful of obstruction, 

Do your duty, never fail

Keep your hand upon the throttle,

And your eye upon the rail.

You will often find obstructions

Look for storms of wind and rain

On a fill, a curve, or trestle

They will almost ditch your train:

Put your trust in Jesus

Never falter, never fail

Keep your hand upon the throttle,

And your eye upon the rail.

Charles Tillman

The Sherwood Cemetery

View of some of the older gravestones next to a mossy tree

The Charlottetown Cemetery Company was first enacted on June 28th of 1872[8]. It was established three miles outside of the city limits, in accordance with the rules that were in place at that time. It was the only place where Protestants were legally allowed to bury their dead[9]. There are many different ways to bury the dead, and this location in particular is defined as a cemetery as it is not attached to a church; in the middle of the 18th century cemeteries were first formed as the public deemed it poor for health to have corps buried in town[9]. If it was located next to church, it would be called a churchyard[10] . Another location to bury the dead, pretty similar, is called a burial ground. They are fairly similar to cemeteries, all except they are for minority groups in the community. As the Acadian community on the island was mostly Catholic, there would not have been any Acadian funeral trains to the Sherwood Cemetery.  There are many important people who were buried in the Sherwood Cemetery including John Hamilton Gray, one of the fathers of Confederation[11]. There are also many veterans who are now laid to rest in this cemetery. Twenty men who trained in the air force navigation school for the Second World War are buried altogether in a row[12].

Line of RCAF graves, with weathered memorial wreaths from past remembrance day service
Royal Air Force Memorial in The Sherwood Cemetery

When trains were running on the island, it was quite common for funeral trains to transport the dead and its mourners to sites, including the Charlottetown Cemetery. They were considered “special trains”, just like they would have a picnic or festival trains [13]. They only cost five dollars to request a funeral train [6]. Dutch Thompson, a local historian,  recalls how funeral trains were run.

“The special train would leave Charlottetown station all draped in black with the casket in the baggage car and the mourners in the passenger car and friends and so on and they would go out and the train would stop, very dignified, at the cemetery station on the Sherwood Road.” [14]

 

After the train stopped, it would wait until the mourners were at a respectable distance. The trains at the time would have been extremely loud, and the train would come back after the funeral had finished to pick up the mourners[13]. In his book, Byron Burns, talks about funeral trains into the end of their times, going into the 1920’s. At this time, trains were usually only used for funerals when the unpaved roads at the time would not have been safe to drive people to the funeral, but in the early days was used more commonly than cars[6].

The Callaghan Murder

An old mossy gravestone in the Sherwood Cemetery

In my research, I found one story particularly compelling. In 1885,  only a few years after trains were first introduced to Prince Edward Island there was a man named Patrick Callaghan. He was the caretaker and the keeper of the Sherwood Cemetery [14]. His duties would have included digging graves as well as maintaining the gardens of the cemetery, taking care of the trees and flowers. I imagine he would have been a kind-hearted gentleman, a hard worker, and close to the spirit world. He even had his own cottage, on the south corner of the cemetery, with a neat little fence and respective gardens. The cottage was 30 by 20 feet and included a kitchen, bed, a tool shed, and an unfinished second floor. It had everything he would have needed including a trunk for his clothes and papers[15].

On May 26th, 1885 it was announced in the local newspaper, The Daily Examiner that Mr. Callaghan was brutally murdered. The papers described him as “a quiet inoffensive old man.”[16]  His head was “beaten into an unrecognizable mass” and his throat “cut with a dull butcher’s blade.” [16] His body was hidden under the bedding in his home and they only discovered the body when they could smell the body[16]. According to the papers, many of the men involved in the case were sick at the sight of the body and had to leave the room. In court, there were a few men who testified including a friend of his Isaac Henderson who found the body[15]. He was a neighbor and called himself a friend of the deceased. He found the body with his young son when visiting to see if he was well, after having been absent for the last few days[16].

There was a ballad written about the Callaghan murder, assumed to have been written in 1886[17]. The song is credited to have been written by poet Lawrence Doyle, but many others have contributed to it since it was written. Some stanzas were added in 1968, the last time it was performed[17] . This particular murder ballad is particularly interesting because unlike others of the time, a majority of the song is dedicated to describing how bloody the whole affair had been[17].

A man named  Alexander Gillis was convinced of the murder, after being found in Harmony, with Callaghan’s possession, including some valuables that were stolen. He was also found covered in blood but claimed he had “slaughtered a cow.” [17] Originally, he was set to be executed on the eleventh of March, 1886, which would have been his fifty-third birthday, but the judge changed his mind a few days prior and gave him a life sentence in the Dorchester Penitentiary in New Brunswick[17].

Please enjoy listening to this recording of the ballad, by Janey-Lynn Perrier, Josie Thibodeau and Olivia MacPhail. Janey-Lynn is in her first year studying voice at the University of Prince Edward Island. To hear more of her work, please visit her youtube channel here. Josie is also a first year music student at the university of Prince Edward Island, studying on the trombone. Olivia is a third-year music education student at UPEI, majoring on the tuba. The three added the accompaniments themselves to Doyle’s lyrics [18].

Significance

Historically, funeral trains had a big significance on individuals. Dealing with the ideas of death and the afterlife has always been a debated discussion among religions and makes a great deal to every individual. It must change the experience of taking the train on a regular basis after having mourned the death of a close family member in the same compartment. 

Funeral trains will now only become part of the past, a story to tell to future generations. As we progress as a society, we become less religious and strict about tradition. Often corpses are cremated and kept in family homes.  Cemeteries have only been around for a couple of centuries, so who knows, maybe someday they will only be seen in books about zombies and ghosts, a curiosity of the past. Prince Edward Island made great decisions when they ended the railroads, setting the Island up to be sustainable in the future.

In conclusion, the Sherwood Cemetery has been burying citizens of Charlottetown since eighteen seventy-two, just on the outskirts of the town. The Cemetery hosted a train station and the train often carried the dead and their mourneres to burials. The Sherwood Cemetery was witness to one of the most brutal murders on the Island in 1885 when Patrick Callaghan, the caretaker, was killed in his home on the grounds. Many veterans including a row of twenty Airforce men are buried there as well as Father of Confederation, John Hamilton Gray.


Notes

1 Keeping Tracks

2 Campbell, Marlene, and Jean MacKay, GERMAN PRISONERS OF WAR BROUGHT TO P.E.I. in 1918 

3 Manager, Social Media, NO. 2 CONSTRUCTION COMPANY: Breaking New Ground

4 Plan of Charlottetown Royalty

5 La Société Historique Acadienne de l’Î-.P.-E., Le Culte Des Morts

6 Glenys Caswell, An exploration of coffin-related rituals and practices in Scottish Presbyterian funerals

7 Burns, A. Byron. A Narrow Gauge Steam Railroad on Prince Edward Island

8 Thomas Reilly, The Acts of the General Assembly of Prince Edward Island

9 Charlottetown Cemetery Company Notice,” The Daily Examiner

10 Rugg, Mortality

11 Sherwood Cemetery in Brackley, Prince Edward Island – Find A Grave Cemetery

12 SHERWOOD CEMETERY, CWGC

13 Allan Graham, A Photo History of the Prince Edward Island Railway

14 P.E.I.’s Landscape Was Very Different in the Bygone Days, CBC News 

15 THE TRAGEDY AT SHERWOOD CEMETERY.” The Daily Examiner

16 THE CALAHAN MURDER.” The Daily Examiner

17 Edward D. Ives,The Songs 12 The Callaghan Murder

(All photos by author)

Bibliography

Primary Sources;

“THE CALAHAN MURDER.” The Daily Examiner. January 21, 1886. https://islandnewspapers.ca/home.

“Charlottetown Cemetery Company Notice.” The Daily Examiner. June 19, 1874. https://islandnewspapers.ca/home.

“Commutation of the Death Sentence.” The Daily Examiner. March 18, 1886. https://islandnewspapers.ca/home.

“Plan of Charlottetown Royalty.” IslandImagined. J.H. Meacham’s and Company. Accessed March 17, 2021. https://www.islandimagined.ca/islandora/object/imagined%3A208439.

Reilly, Thomas, The Acts of the General Assembly of Prince Edward Island § (1872).

“THE TRAGEDY AT SHERWOOD CEMETERY.” The Daily Examiner. May 28, 1885. https://islandnewspapers.ca/home. 

Secondary Sources;

Burns, A. Byron. A Narrow Gauge Steam Railroad on Prince Edward Island, 1996. 

Cambell, Marlene, and Jean MacKay. “GERMAN PRISONERS OF WAR BROUGHT TO P.E.I. in 1918.” The Journal Pioneer. February 21, 2018. https://www.pressreader.com/canada/journal-pioneer. 

Francis, Laurel, Debbie K. MacDonald, and Valerie Stanley. Brakeley Past and Present. Summerside, Prince Edward Island: Williams and Crue Ltd, 1977.

Glenys Caswell An exploration of coffin-related rituals and practices in Scottish Presbyterian funerals, International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church, 10:4, 306-319, 2010.  DOI: 10.1080/1474225X.2010.507723

Graham, Allan. “Specials and Excursions in the 1890s.” Essay. In A Photo History of the Prince Edward Island Railway, 2Nd ed., 34. Sponsored by CN Lines SIG, 2001.

Ives, Edward D. “The Songs 12 The Callaghan Murder.” Essay. In Laurence Doyle: The Farmer Poet of Prince Edward Island A Study in Local Songmaking, 157–69. No. 92. University of Maine Press, 1971.

Keeping Tracks. Accessed March 29, 2021. http://www.kennet.pe.ca/chip/english/railway/lines.htm. 

La Société Historique Acadienne de l’Î-.P.-E. “Le Cult Des Morts.” Essay. In La Petite Souvenance 9, 9:9–16, 1983.

Manager, Social Media. “NO. 2 CONSTRUCTION COMPANY: Breaking New Ground.” espritdecorps. espritdecorps, June 1, 2018. http://espritdecorps.ca/history-feature/no-2-construction-company-breaking-new-ground. 

“P.E.I.’s Landscape Was Very Different in the Bygone Days | CBC News.” CBCnews. CBC/Radio Canada, September 22, 2019. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/prince-edward-island/pei-bygone-days-confederation-trail-biking-1.5288069.

Rugg, J. “Defining the Place of Burial: What Makes a Cemetery a Cemetery?” Mortality 5, no. 3 (November 2000): 259–75.

“Sherwood Cemetery in Brackley, Prince Edward Island – Find A Grave Cemetery.” Find a Grave. Accessed March 17, 2021. http://www.findagrave.com/cemetery/1975062/sherwood-cemetery. 

“SHERWOOD CEMETERY.” CWGC. Accessed March 17, 2021. https://www.cwgc.org/visit-us/find-cemeteries-memorials/cemetery-details/2103928/sherwood-cemetery/.

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