On Saturday 05 August 1939 a disastrous railway crash took place at Canal Street, Saltcoats, which killed 4 people and injured 27.  The Arran boat train, consisting of 7 coaches, was on the Lanarkshire & Ayrshire railway line coming from Glasgow Central Station to Montgomerie Pier, Ardrossan.  Passing through Stevenston, it had slowed down to take the bend on the approach to the bridge which crossed over Canal Street, Saltcoats.  As the train engine began crossing the bridge, it left the rails and with a great roaring noise continued along the permanent way before the engine plunged down the 20-foot embankment, taking with it the tender and first 2 carriages, and became embedded in the rear garden of the Miner’s Home, with the fire tender twisted at a right angle and upside down.

The engine broke away from the first coach, which slid past the engine coming to rest on the tender, but the second and third coaches were badly damaged with the third coach being driven into the second.   The fourth and fifth coaches remained on the permanent way.  Had the train plunged off the embarkment just a few seconds earlier it would have ploughed into the Miners’ Home, where the 50 convalescing miners had just sat down to lunch. 

The Miners, local residents and Ardrossan Fire Brigade quickly began the rescue work of freeing the trapped passengers and carrying out the injured.  The driver, who had been badly scalded and injured managed to scramble out of his cabin.  All that could be seen of the fireman was his hands visible below the wreck of the engine.

Using stanchions from a nearby hoarding board, the miners shored up the third carriage which had been teetering precariously near the edge of the embankment.  David Usher, an unemployed Glasgow man holidaying in Saltcoats, squeezed his way into the driver’s cabin to open the safety valve, thereby preventing the boiler of the engine from bursting.  He received slight burns to his head, hands and feet.

Medical staff and ambulances arrived quickly and began caring for the injured and those suffering from shock, while the police held back the spectators.  The Miners’ Home was turned into a makeshift hospital whilst seven of the injured passengers, including driver Joseph Birrell, were taken to Kilmarnock Infirmary.  These were: Seven-year-old David Cox Smith (accompanied by his parents John and Betty Smith) and 22-year-old twins William and Charles Cassie who had all suffered minor injuries and were later released; John Miller (57), a Glasgow merchant with chest injuries; William Laird (42), a Civil Servant from Paisley with injuries to his legs and Catherine McKinnon Aitken Davidson (39), a clerkess from Edinburgh, with injuries to her legs and feet.

Three people were killed instantly, the fireman Patrick Charles Brown aged 35; Miss Mary Wilson, clerkess, aged 38, and James McKillop, iron driller, aged 20, all of them from Glasgow.  The engine driver Joseph Birrell, also from Glasgow, died the following day in Kilmarnock Infirmary from his injuries.  He was survived by a wife and 3 children. 

It took 7 hours to remove the body of fireman Patrick Charles Brown from the wreckage.  Powerful cranes had to be brought to the scene to raise the engine off his body.  Sadly, it was revealed that Patrick had only joined the boat train at the last minute.  He had worked for the London, Midland and Scottish Railway for 20 years and was survived by a wife and 6 children. On Sunday a breakdown squad worked for several hours to remove the wreckage from the grounds of the Miners Home, which was taken away in a goods train.