Joseph Birse joined the Grand Trunk Railway in 1858 and became an engineer in 1864. On December 4, 1890 at 0530, he left Montreal's Bonaventure Station with Train No 6, the Toronto Express. A derailment west of the station in the midst of a raging blizzard had delayed the train's departure by almost six hours. Running on the wrong main line track on the time of the Montreal to Lachine local train, the switchman mistook the Express for the Lachine local and threw the switch in front of the train which was diverted on the 1.5 mile long Lachine branch.
Because of the continuing blizzard conditions, neither Birse nor his fireman noticed the error until they passed the station lights near the end of the Lachine wharf. Birse put on the brakes and stayed at his post, slowing the train so that only the locomotive and front end of the baggage car went into the St. Lawrence River. Birse was found dead with his hand on the throttle but the 100 passengers on the
train were saved.
He is buried in the Mont Royal Cemetary in Montreal beneath a headstone which states "accidentally killed at Lachine while in the discharge of his duty as engineer on the GTR December 4th, 1890. Aged 52 years.”