TITLE: A Day to be Remembered
By Jim Oates
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It began as any other morning, August 10, 1907 promised to be another hot sweltering day. Hilly Neice got up early that morning. As all good farmers, he fed the horses first then himself; immediately after breakfast, he harnessed the team and headed to the cornfield. He hoped to finish the scuffling before the sun reached its hottest.
Edwin Beaman, at 18 years of age, was to start his new job as teller at the new bank that morning. While heading to the post office about 9 A.M, he heard what sounded like rifle shots coming from the vicinity of the Michigan Central station. His mind immediately flashed back to the time he was serving as night watchman in the old bank. The town policeman told him that he always met the night train because some unsavoury characters would get off from time to time. This information made him nervous so he kept the.38 revolver at his side as he slept on a cot beside the safe. Now, anything that sounded like a gun shot, always made his ears perk up. About 10 minutes before 10 A.M, as young Edwin was sitting in his teller’s cage, waiting for his very first customer, he felt a tremendous shudder that shook the whole building. The only thing that saved him from severe injury was the bars of the teller’s cage, if he had not been enclosed within the cage he would have been buried under huge chunks of falling plaster.
Approximately three miles away, Hilly Neice, riding his corn cultivator behind the team of heavy horses, felt the tremor. He watched in amazement as the horses instingtively, fell as one, their legs buckled beneath them.
A rail car filled with explosives, destined for a dredging operation in Amherstburg was being shunted on the rail siding at the Michigan Central station in Essex, Ontario. Two young men from Amherstburg were both killed. Leo Conlon had been hanging onto the ladder on the north side of the car while Joseph McNary was on the ground alongside the car relaying signals to the engineer. When the car exploded, a cloud of dust and debris flew in all directions.
Joseph McNary’s charred body was found in the crater that was created when the car exploded. Pieces of Leo Conlon’s body were recovered as far away as 400 feet, with bits of flesh hanging on tree branches and a hand was found near the Trimble home. The rest of his body was lying by the Thomas’ fence some 200 yards away. The crater formed was 20 feet across and 10 to 12 feet deep. The engineer’s and the fireman’s lives were both spared, but not without injury, they were both ejected from the engine.
Considering the extensive damaged to the locomotive, it had to have been a miracle.
A group of men standing some distance away across the yard were blown off their feet, injuring many. A horse standing nearby was killed instantly as it was pierced by a piece of flying rail.
The explosion resounded as far away as Detroit, Michigan, across the river from Windsor. Windows were shattered and plaster cracked and fell, throughout the entire area within a radius of twenty miles.
The conductor reported that they had noticed glycerine leaking, and on checking the car, they found a number of boxes had fallen over. After they had straightened the load, the conductor proceeded to the other side of the street where he witnessed both of his trainmen blown to pieces.
In the planing mill nearby Mr. Wyman had been turning some veranda posts. He usually laid them on the floor, but this morning he stood them up, this action saved his life as they supported the roof as it came crashing in, preventing him from being crushed. Two blocks away, while he was shaving a customer, a piece of flying metal struck and broke the razor in the hand of the barber.
Thankfully, an excursion train, filled with vacationers from Brantford destined for Detroit, was running late that morning. Although the loss of life was minimal, the damage throughout the town was devastating. There was hardly a building left unscathed. The locomotive was in shambles and there where piles of rubble everywhere. Newly erected, fine homes and shops, were severely damaged.
As in most disasters, although the loss was great, the miraculous hand of God was evident. Also, there always seems to be a few hardy souls who are willing to give of themselves, even through great difficulty, to help others. An example of this selflessness was Miss Flossie Cockburn, who along with her sister May operated the telephone switchboard in the town. Even though May was severely injured, Flossie stayed at her switchboard calling for help and answered the continuous stream of calls. Flossie stayed at her post for over thirteen hours. Because of her efforts, a special train arrived from Windsor with doctors and nurses to aid the injured.
The sturdy fieldstone, station building was severely damaged and the freight sheds were demolished. A length of rail was hurled through the boiler of the hydroelectric plant cutting off power to the town. The resilient town people carried on business as best as they could, and the shops that were able, resumed business as quickly as possible using oil lamps. Along with the station and freight sheds, the grain elevator, a gristmill, planing mill, carriage works, power plant and the Methodist Church were all reduced to piles of rubble.
Word soon spread across the surrounding countryside, and by afternoon clouds of dust were seen moving along Number 3 Highway as people came from as far away as Windsor to lend a hand. They came in and on, any mode of transportation that could be found.
The first task in returning the town to a semblance of order was to board up the windows as quickly as possible to keep out the rain and looters. Most of the shops in town remained windowless for weeks because all the glass had to be imported and there was a strike on in Europe at the time.
The investigation found the explosion had several possible causes. It was required that the tubes of dynamite be wrapped in paraffin paper and boxed to reduce the danger of concussion, and to prevent liquid from escaping if the nitro-glycerine were to leak. The manufacturer did not do this properly, as well, the boxes of explosives were not packed securely in the boxcar and this allowed the cartons to topple over. The buildup of heat in the boxcar, caused the nitro-glycerine to liquefy, this also played a part in the tragedy. As the boxes toppled, the tubes of dynamite burst, releasing the liquid, which dripped through the cracks in the floor boards onto the rails. Testimony given by other witnesses along with that of the conductor, stated, they had seen nitro dripping from the car onto the rail bed. The dripping nitro exploded on striking the rails, causing what some thought were gunshots. This continued until the whole car blew.
The inquest into the deaths of the two workers placed the blame on the manufacturer for improper packaging and the railroad for improperly securing the load. Each denied the accusations, with each blaming the other. The investigation also established that the dynamite had been improperly cured. The railway was held responsible for the improper handling of explosives and the Michigan Central was fined $125,000. This money aided in the rebuilding of the town, which began almost immediately. Some of the buildings were not finished until the following summer.
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