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Explosion Shattered Essex in 1907

from “The Three R’s of Essex – Riches, Rags, Recovery,”
by Evelyn Couch Walker, Revised 2nd Edition, 1982

Rear view of the Michigan Central Station in Essex showing damage to
it and the surrounding freight sheds

Saturday August 10, 1907. At the Canadian Imperial Bank in downtown Essex, eighteen year old Edwin Beaman was working his first shift as a teller– a day that would go down in infamy for the townfolk of Essex. The new bank at the main intersection was under the management of J.M. Kairns and was a progressive addition to the bustling little town.

Walking to the post office at around 9 a.m., Beaman considered the promise of a very warm day. He thought he heard rifle shots at the nearby Michigan Central Station. Later known as the New York Central, the railway ran through southwestern Ontario, connecting Detroit and Buffalo. The sound of gunfire unnnerved him.

“Before the new bank was built I performed the night watchman duty in the small office that served as a bank until the new one was finished. I slept on a cot with a safe on one side of me and a .38 revolver on the other side, at a salary of 50 cents a night. The town policeman told me that he always met the night train because some shady looking characters sometimes debarked. I was never able to go to sleep until after the train left town and anything that sounded like rifle shots at the station would make me prick up my ears.”

At 10 minutes before 10 a.m., Beaman was in the teller’s cage, chin on hands, meditating on his new surroundings when the earth seemed to shudder and the plaster ceiling came down in huge chunks. Beaman was protected by his teller’s cage. No one in the bank was hurt although one man was nearly buried in a pile of rubble. The force of the blast created a vacuum so great that the window glass was hurled into the bank and then blown back out.

Twenty miles away plaster fell from the ceiling and the walls of the Windsor city hall and windows rattled in Detroit. When the dust settled it was learned that a boxcar loaded with 5,000 pounds of nitro-glycerine had exploded at the MC Station, about a quarter of a mile away from the bank. Two men were killed, a quarter of a million dollars worth of property was destroyed, dozens of residents were injured and the town was thrown into a panic. The rifle shots Beaman thought he heard were drops of glycerine on the tracks, exploding as the shunting train ran over them. This is the story of how it happened.

Explosives were being shipped by train to Amherstburg for dredging operations on the Detroit River. The explosives had been brought in on a boxcar on Friday night, to be switched to the Amherstburg train.

The yard crew was “shunting” the cars– coupling them to the other train. David Cottrell, the engineer, and J. Madigan, the fireman, were in the engine. Thomas Berry, the conductor, was standing in front of the station. Leo Conlon was riding on the car containing the explosives, hanging on to the ladder on the north side. Joseph McNary was alongside to give signals to the engineer.

As the trains came together, the contents of the one car exploded, probably ignited by a spark on the track. The two young trainmen from Amherstburg were blown asunder. The burned torso of Joseph McNary was found in a crater under the train car. Only pieces of Leo Conlon were found, as far away as 400 feet. Bits of flesh and blood smeared the branches of the elm trees. McNary’s right hand was found near Trimble’s home and part of his body was found lying by G. J. Thomas’ fence, 200 yards north of the railway.

The crater under the car was 20 feet across and 10 to 12 feet deep.

The conductor told reporters, “I saw both my trainmen blown to atoms, just a few feet in front of me. We had noticed the glycerine leaking so we went into the car. Some of the boxes had fallen down so we stood them up again. Conlon and McNary stayed near the car but I went across the street as I did not feel any too safe, even there.”

The engineer and the fireman were hurled from the engine. The force of the blast knocked down many men and seriously injured others. A horse standing nearby was killed when a piece of rail pierced its body.

As is often the case in disasters, there were many people who by strange coincidence escaped death. A few yards away in the planning mill, George Wyman was turning veranda posts on a lathe. He usually laid the finished posts flat on the floor but he stood them up that morning. When the mill collapsed the posts held up the roof– saving his life.

A barber in his shop two blocks away was shaving a customer when a piece of flying metal broke the razor in his hands. An excursion train from Brantford to Detroit with a crowd of holidayers was due at the station seconds before the explosion. Fortunately it was running late that morning.

The town’s doctor, James Brien, who had been ill, died about two hours after the tragedy of natural causes (possibly from shock). So much plaster fell off the walls and ceiling of his home and so many windows were broken, that his funeral had to be held on his lawn.

The telephone switchboard was operated by Mrs. Flossie and May Cockburn, in the stockroom of the drugstore. Even though May was seriously injured, Flossie stayed on duty for over 13 hours to send help and to answer the continuous calls from worried relatives. Through her efforts a special train from Windsor brought doctors and nurses to aid the injured.

Back at the bank, the teller Beaman at first thought that the bank was being held up. He ran down to the basement to lock an outside door in order to apprehend the culprit. It was then that he saw a huge black cloud and realized something terrible had happened. The five employees of the bank were required to remain at their work and did not learn any details until later in the day.

Front view of the Michigan Central Station after the 1907 explosion

To restore order the first task was to board over broken windows to deter looters and keep out rain. A rail had been blown through the boiler of the hydro plant cutting off the electricity but even without it, business continued somewhat as usual with oil lamps. A glass strike in Europe, the only source of glass at that time, made it necessary for stores to operate windowless and boarded up for weeks.

Pieces of rail as long as two feet were thrown as far as 1,500 feet. The Methodist Church, the planning mill, grist mill, electricity plant, carriage works, warehouse and elevator, the MC depot and freight shed, as well as several homes were completely destroyed.

John McDougall lost his home aand his livery stable and carriage works. A large piece of rail was hurled through the back window of Robert Wolfe’s home on Arthur Avenue. It broke through an inside door and landed near the front window. Another two-foot piece of rail landed on the verandah of D.C. Hopgood’s home on Irwin Avenue.

Chief Police Robert Wolfe put fourteen constables on the day and throughout the following week.

By early afternoon, Highway 3, then a dirt road from Windsor, was one continuous cloud of dust as good Samaritans rushed to Essex in every conceivable kind of contraption. Later, curiosity seekers crowded into the overburdened town. Since few people were able to return home the same day, accommodations were exhausted and food supplies ran low.

A disgusted reporter from the Windsor Record wrote, “With almost ghoulish glee they searched over lawns for bits of the dead bodies and exhibited anything they might find to the morbid crowd.”

Reports by the local newspaper office, dated August 23, 1907, reported the cause of the explosion. The tubes of dynamite were packed 25 to a box. It was required that each boxful of cartridges be wrapped in paraffin paper before they were boxed to reduce the danger of concussion, and to prevent seepage if the nitro-glycerine leaked from its absorbent. One or more of the boxes were broken, the tubes of dynamite burst and the liquid was released.

The paper went on: “The inquest into the deaths of Leo Conlon and Joseph McNary will be held at the town hall today (13 days after the explosion). Besides representatives of the MCR and Canadian Railway Commission, the Power Company is expected to be represented by counsel. The Power Company will endeavor to see that the blame is not laid at their doors, while the Railway Company will seek to have themselves blameless.”

The account provided much description of the condition and injuries of each victim. The following is an example of the style of reporting at that time: “Mr. Stimers was taken to the hospital Saturday afternoon (note the delay). He suffered internal injuries as he vomited considerably on Sunday and Monday. He has also been suffering from shock but on Monday evening his temperature was normal and condition favorable.”

“While his arm was very badly lacerated, the physician states that he will not lose same. Large slivers were taken out of his back. Mr. Stimer’s hearing was seriously affected but the attending physicians now hope that he will not lose same. His arm is giving him much pain.”

The MCR had been taking dynamite to Amherstburg for a number of years. According to reporters in the Essex Free Press of that time the crew had seen it leaking at other times and had avoided shunting the cars anymore than absolutely necessary. Officials, according to the report, believed nitro-glycerine simply melted in the heat of that August day. C.E. Naylor, J.H. Carlton and Wallace Ritchie, who said they had seen the explosives dripping from the boxcar, also gave testimony at the hearing.

At the investigation it was established that the dynamite was improperly cured, and the railway was held responsible for careless handling of an explosive. The company was fined $125,000 for money to repair the damage to the town.

Only one month later the town acted as host to a Liberal Party picnic, but some of the buildings were not replaced until the following summer.

Copies of “The Three R’s of Essex – Riches, Rags, Recovery” are
available for sale at the historical Essex Train Station.

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