Shattered Essex in 1907
“The Three R’s of Essex – Riches, Rags,
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
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.
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
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.”
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
crater under the car was 20 feet across and 10 to 12 feet
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
Police Robert Wolfe put fourteen constables on the day and
throughout the following week.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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