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Little-known Canadian saved hundreds of lives

William Bennett Best

William Best, circa 1890s. (Jim Belknap Collection)

In "Worth the fight" (page 10 of the August-September 2011 issue) we learned about William Bennett Best, a train engineer who saved five hundred people from a forest fire. His champion, Jim Belknap, advocates for better recognition in Canada of Best's deeds. Assistant editor Beverly Tallon speaks with Jim Belknap in this podcast interview about his quest to see the Canadian hero honoured.

About the Hinckley Minnesota fire

Twenty years ago, Jim Belknap came across two scrapbooks and a trunk full of newspaper clippings, railroad passes, photographs, and personal mementos about William Bennett Best.

A native of Lennoxville, Quebec, Best was working for the Eastern Minnesota Railroad when the Great Hinckley Fire broke out. The September 1, 1894, forest fire burned through more than eight hundred square kilometres — including Hinckley, Minnesota, and five other towns — and killed several hundred people. The exact number who died remains unknown, but if not for the actions of Best it would surely have been higher.

Best was an engineer on a freight train sent to rescue the citizens of Hinckley. When the lead engine began to pull away, Best applied the brakes and held the train so that more people could get on. In the face of the raging forest fire, he nearly got into a fight with another engineer who wanted to leave as quickly as possible.

Engineer William Best at the controls of his of Eastern Minnesota Railway locomotive, circa 1894. (Jim Belknap Collection)

Engineer William Best at the controls of his of Eastern Minnesota Railway locomotive, circa 1894. (Jim Belknap Collection)

Best’s obstinacy is credited with saving an additional five hundred people from certain death, and the daring train rescue made him a hero in the area. The town of Hinckley remembers him in its local museum and even named a street after him. Yet his feat has received little official recognition in Canada.

In 2000, Belknap applied to Canada’s Historic Sites and Monuments Board to have a commemorative plaque erected, but was turned down. In its reply, the board cited its criteria for recognition: “A person may be designated of national historic significance if that person made an outstanding and lasting contribution to Canadian history, but it is not possible to establish such an association in this case.”

“They could do it for Bethune,” Belknap lamented, referring to the Canadian physician who is perhaps best known for his work during the Spanish Civil War and in China. “The only recognition so far for William Best in the community is a ten-by-twelve-inch plaque at the community centre in Lennoxville, Quebec.”


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