Remembering a Mysterious Summer of ’70 Tragedy

On 10 July 1970, three young Cape Breton men — 20-year-old Terry Burt of Sydney, 17-year-old David Burrows of Sydney River and 15-year-old Kenny Novak of Sydney River — were run over by a freight train on a track in Maine, about 45 kilometers from the Canadian border.

It happened on a Friday morning, around 7 am, near a place called Smyrna Mills. The 20-car Bangor and Aroostook train was heading north to Houlton, Maine. It had just rounded a sharp turn when, by his own account, the engineer spotted some “debris” on the tracks and began to apply the brakes.

Source: Cape Breton Post, 13 July 1970

Source: Cape Breton Post, 13 July 1970

From about 150 feet away, he recognized the debris as sleeping bags and locked the train’s wheels but it was too late – all 20 cars passed over what turned out to be the bodies of the three youths.

That they were sleeping in or under the bags was part of the official story, reported without question in the Cape Breton Post‘s scant Page-3 coverage, and pronounced by Sheriff Darrell Crandall of the Aroostook County Sheriff’s Department: the three, hitchhiking from Canada, maybe on the way to Washington, D.C. for some reason, had entered the United States illegally and, looking for a place to sleep, had decided to bed down on train tracks.

Not one of the three was carrying ID, and less than six dollars was found among them. Crandall said a scattering of Canadian goods and a name and address on one of the sleeping bags helped them identify the three Cape Bretoners.

The Sheriff immediately ruled out the possibility of foul play. But he allowed that there was one puzzling question: “Why did they lay down on the railway tracks?”

 

Terry Burt was from Whitney Pier where we were both part of a large, amorphous group of young people, aged anywhere from 14 to 20, who hung out on the same street corners and dance halls in the Pier.

Our world, the source of our shared identity, covered two blocks stretching from a convenience store next to the Post Office fence on Victoria Road, where we would meet to smoke, chat and watch people go by, to “The Gym” — the Holy Redeemer Parish Center — where we’d play floor hockey and basketball, hang around the basement bowling alley and attend the Friday night dances.

I didn’t know Terry well. In 1970, at 15, I was significantly younger than he was and I suspected even then that he found me a bit lightweight (I wouldn’t have disagreed). I liked Terry and thought we got along well in our casual encounters. I saw him as a kind of John Lennon figure; a thoughtful type, with longish hair and round glasses and a serious demeanor. I don’t remember ever seeing him laugh, but he was always very pleasant and polite.

Terry was trying to quit smoking around that time, and he once told us younger people, shaking his head and sheepishly lighting up a smoke, that cigarettes were a poisonous drug and to stay away from them. Apart from smoking, he took care of himself: he was compact, well-dressed, well-groomed. He owned a motor cycle with high handlebars, which he drove carefully and took good care of.

 

Aerial view of Whitney Pier, N.S..1983 (Photo courtesy of Beaton Institute https://beatoninstitute.com/83-6409-13709)

Aerial view of Whitney Pier, N.S. (Photo courtesy of Beaton Institute )

 

We were a pretty decent bunch, but we weren’t saints — we had our share of stupidity and badness. Bullying and sneakiness, irresponsibility and moral cowardice: they seem, to some degree or another, to be part of the adolescent journey. But I don’t remember Terry ever behaving in anything but a good way and others from our group, with whom I recently spoke, confirm this.

“I thought the world of him,” Bob Gill, who lived in Terry’s neighborhood and was close to Terry, told me. “He was a very gentle soul.”

Lauchie MacDonald, who then lived next door to me on Matilda Street and now teaches in Halifax, emailed me:

I liked Terry and enjoyed conversations with him. He was an interesting, nice guy. I definitely remember talking to him on the fence in front of the Post Office. He was great to talk to about the ideals of the time: peace and love and I guess the freedom of the road.

A girl in the group, Rose Pendergast (now Courage), knew him better than most. In July 1970, she had recently begun dating Terry; had gone to his house where she “listened to Jethro Tull for the first time.”

He was “quite quiet and an absolute gentleman,” according to Rose.

I don’t remember how I met him; he must have just been in our group of people. But it was in June at a dance and I remember him walking me home that night.

They dated only three or four times:

I don’t even know if it was a month. But he made an impression on me.

 

Kenny Novak and David Burrows were from Sydney River and although I didn’t know David, in the spring of 1970, Kenny had started showing up around the Gym and the Post Office, where we hung out.

A lot of people came and went in the group and Kenny, who was lively and likable, just suddenly became one of the crowd. He was my age, 15, but I don’t remember having a real conversation with him. Probably, since he was from Sydney River, he wasn’t around that much, maybe only on the weekends. He was at a few of the Friday night dances.

Pat Kennedy, who lived on James Street, directly across from the Gym, shared a memory of a Friday dance, a night I was there. A few of us had arrived early to put out the tables and chairs in return for free admission. It was about 9 pm, because the doors had just opened and Soul Sonny, the regular Gym DJ, was on stage getting ready to start the music:

I remember Terry was sitting by himself on the edge of the stage, having a smoke. People were just starting to drift in. Soul Sonny put on a song, ‘Mississippi Queen,‘ the song that opens with cowbells, like a drum beat. Kenny jumped up on the stage and started dancing. Terry looked up at Kenny and burst out laughing. That’s the last time I remember seeing Terry. It’s a good last memory – Terry laughing with his friend and Kenny dancing.

"The Gym." The former Holy Redeemer Parish Ctre is now a mosque. (Photo via Google Street View)

“The Gym.” The former Holy Redeemer Parish Centre is now a mosque. (Photo via Google Street View)

 

Another member of our group, Alan Crawley, has a more haunting last memory of Terry and Kenny and David.

The week before they died, Alan had hitchhiked to the Ingonish camp grounds with Terry and Kenny. It was Alan’s first time camping, and he remembers having trouble setting up the tent and breakfasting on cold beans their first morning at the grounds. He remembers swimming and joking with his buddies and meeting up with other young people at the camp site.

A couple of days in, David Burrows, whom Alan didn’t know, arrived to join them. It was David who had the idea of hitchhiking to the States – Alan couldn’t say for sure why.

Alan told the others that he couldn’t go with them, he wanted to get back to Sydney – an excuse that was met with none of the mockery common to young men, nothing about “wimping out” or anything like that. The immediate concern of Alan’s friends was whether he would be able to get home by himself. Alan assured them he could get a drive with a couple of girls he’d just met who were heading back to Sydney and they were fine with that.

Alan left Terry, Kenny and David planning an adventure. A week later, he was attending their memorial service in something he describes as close to a state of shock.

Forty-seven years later, he still wonders what really happened that day in 1970.

 

Ken Jessome

 

Spectator arts reporter Ken Jessome is a playwright who was born and raised in Whitney Pier. He can be reached here

 

 

 

 

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