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The dilemma of Lac-Mégantic: How to preserve artifacts from historic, human tragedy

Montreal, Maine & Atlantic’s Locomotive 5017, which led the train that crashed in Lac-Mégantic, Que., in 2013, is pictured going through Nantes, Que., in June, 2010. The locomotive was slated to be sold at an auction, but police blocked the sale.

THE CANADIAN PRESS

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?

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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.

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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.

Each bag contained items such as watches, eyeglasses, pipes and false teeth, with any identifying information written on a tag, such as "Woman believed to be in her 30s." The bags offered snapshots of what a cross-section of Halifax residents were carrying with them as they went about their business on the morning of Dec. 6. A review committee decided to accept the items without provoking any fuss. The items became part of the museum's "Mortuary Exhibit."

"I wouldn't say morbid, but it's obviously very sensitive. It touches the heart," said Ms. Richard, who lost two great-grandfathers in the explosion. She still has a $5 bill carried by one of the men when he died. "I think I'll donate it to the museum some day."

The calculated risk of offending public sensitivity is far from the only hurdle to creating commemoration out of a piece like Locomotive 5017. For cash-starved institutions such as museums, cost is a primary factor, along with fitting the museum's mandate. Even artifacts of more joyous history don't always find a home.

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The Gimli Glider may be one of Canada's most famous aircraft, but the Boeing 767-233 languishes in storage in the California desert. "We're still hoping a buyer will step forward," said Terry Lobzun of Collector Car Productions, an Ontario auction house. Mr. Lobzun has the dual interests of promoting the plane's most recent auction and being a history buff.

On July 23, 1983, Air Canada Flight 143 ran out of fuel at about 12,000 metres altitude after crew miscalculated the needed fuel supply. Captain Bob Pearson managed to land the powerless plane at a former Air Force base in Gimli, Man., where children were riding bicycles on an unused runway. No one was seriously hurt.

The Gimli Glider was repaired and returned to service until 2008.

In April, the aircraft went up for auction. Bids got up to $425,000, below the $2.5-million reserved bid, and the plane was not sold. Mr. Lobzun said the jet could still be made airworthy and has commercial value for parts, but could probably now be purchased "for a few hundred grand," still a sum the town of Gimli certainly can't afford.

But there would be other costs. The US Airways aircraft that landed safely on water near New York in the "Miracle on the Hudson" in 2009 was dismantled and hauled to an aviation museum in Charlotte, N.C. The cost of that operation, mainly covered by a companies and wealthy benefactors, has never been revealed. The Gimli plane would be more expensive to move, Mr. Lobzun said.

"Because it's a jumbo, a wide-body, you can't just tow it down the road, you have to fly it in," said Mr. Lobzun. "You would have to put together a crew, find some engines and fly it to Gimli. And then you'd have to turn it into a museum."

Officials at the Western Canada Aviation Museum in Winnipeg have said they are not interested. The aircraft is too much like any other people fly every day.

Mr. Lobzun noted historical objects often sit dormant for decades before their significance is recognized. He pointed to a Grosser Mercedes 770 W 150 parked in the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. It was "liberated" in Germany by an American sergeant in 1945, and somehow found its way to a Quebec City businessman, who donated it to the museum in 1970 in return for a charitable donation receipt.

Only in the 1980s did a museum researcher discover the car belonged to none other than Adolf Hitler.

While the acquisition of artifacts can present a public relations problem, so too can the sale. In 2000, museum officials planned to auction off the car, believing it could fetch millions to help pay for museum renovations. The sale was cancelled after public outcry over fears it might fall into the hands of neo-Nazis.

The fate of some historic ships, planes and automobiles:

The RMS Empress of Ireland

Last known valuation: $609,400 (Price paid by Canadian Pacific Steamship Company in 1906)

Fate: The sinking of the Empress of Ireland on May 29, 1914, with 1,012 deaths was nearly as great a disaster as the sinking of the Titanic, but receives not nearly as much fanfare. Sitting under 40 metres of water in the St. Lawrence, it was not protected from grave robbers and treasure hunters the way Titanic was for decades, more protected at its depth of 3,800 metres.

The wreck was the subject of immediate salvage operations, during which silver bars, mail and bodies were recovered. Artifacts have been taken by divers over the years, and oceanographer and wreck preservationist Robert Ballard has said scavengers have disturbed and taken human remains. In 1999, the Quebec government passed a law to classify the wreck as "historical and archaeological property." It was designated a Canadian national historic site in 2009.

The SS Storstad

Last known valuation: $175,000 (Price obtained by CP in 1914)

Fate: The Norwegian coal freighter rammed the Empress of Ireland, causing it to sink and killing 1,012. The ship was seized by Canadian Pacific, which owned the sunken passenger liner, as part of a settlement. The freighter was sold and put back into service. It was sunk by a German U-boat in 1917.

The Gimli Glider

Last known valuation: $425,000 (Highest bid at a 2013 auction)

Fate: The Boeing 767-233 jet was part of the famous incident in 1983 when an Air Canada flight ran out of fuel over Ontario and glided to a safe landing in Gimli, Man. The aircraft continued service until 2008. It currently sits in the Mojave Desert in California with thousands of other decommissioned aircraft, awaiting a possible buyer.

Hitler's Car

Last known valuation: $8-million (Price paid by a Russian billionaire for another Mercedes from Hitler's fleet in 2009)

Fate: Donated to the Canadian War Museum, where it remains.

Titanic

Last known valuation:$200-million (Estimated value in 2012 of 5,000 artifacts taken from the wreck)

Fate: The precise location of the wreck was unknown for decades. Since it was conclusively located in the 1990s, salvage operations have stripped it of thousands of artifacts

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About the Author
National correspondent

Les Perreaux joined the Montreal bureau of the Globe and Mail in 2008. He previously worked for the Canadian Press covering national and international affairs, including federal and Quebec politics and the war in Afghanistan. More

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