Dynamite Explosion, 1879   Stratford- Perth Archives

View  west of Tile Freight Shed   Stratford-Perth Archives  Photo: John Owen

Taken a few miuutes after the Catastrophe by A. XI. CAMPBELL, Photographer. 

On the morning of Monday, May 5, 1879, an actual explosion rocked the city of Stratford to its core.  According to the Stratford Beacon in 1879, at approximately 9:30am, a box car loaded with 3750 pounds of vigorite powder, a powerful explosive prepared from nitro-glycerine, bound for the Detroit River near Amherstburg, Ontario was being shunted into position.  One moment everything was proceeding as per usual and the next an explosion tore the area to pieces; stomping out an unwanted ten-foot-deep-by-twenty-foot-diameter hole in the middle of the Grand Trunk yard; showering the rest of the yard with charred wooden splinters and twisted freight cars; blowing out every poor merchant’s storefront along Market Street; and shattering the windows and doors, as well as violently rearranging the furniture, of at least twenty houses in the surrounding neighbourhoods and even the town hall. 

 So terrific was the blast, in fact, that the shockwave was felt as far as Shakespeare, Tavistock, St. Marys and even Milverton; no doubt causing every citizen to turn their heads towards the direction of Stratford and wonder, “What in the world was that noise?” Miraculously, out of the multiple people injured, only two were killed.  Switchman Francis Pigeon was literally blown to pieces as he took the brunt of the explosion whilst guiding the locomotive in assembling the train; Thomas Dolan, standing just a few yards away, was violently thrown in the air by the force of the blast, landing dead on the ground. 

 Other railway employees such as George Hawkins, car repairers Alfred Lamb and Joseph Humphry, freight clerks Andrew Porter and James Drysdale, Valentine Flynn, car foreman William Simcock and call boy James Miller were left with varying degrees of injuries but still alive.  Hawkins received the worst of it, his head being pierced by an approximate six-inch-long splinter which destroyed the sight in both his eyes; Lamb and Humphry were assaulted by a swarm of splinters as they made their way across the yard; Porter and Drysdale were bruised as the blast hit the freight office, the latter even being thrown over a desk; 

Flynn was bruised when the car checker’s office around him was violently shaken; and Simcock and Miller were scraped as they ducked under near-by cars to avoid the meteoric strike of debris where they once stood.  By another stroke of good fortune, a train headed for Toronto had barely left the yard before the chaos ensued; undoubtedly reducing the potential injury and damage tally greatly.

The second the explosion was heard, both the Grand Trunk and Stratford fire brigades were at the scene, along with a number of railway officials and members of the salvage corps, to extinguish what small fires had ignited, assist in evacuating the injured from further harm, rope off the area to any unauthorized personnel and begin the cleanup process.  The job was performed so quick and efficiently that not only did any local passenger train not experience any kind of delay, but it was said that by noon the following day, any stranger to the area wouldn’t have been able to find any evidence that any disaster of any kind had recently occurred.  In total, approximately twenty-three cars were destroyed, fifty more

had their structures stripped away with only their platforms remaining and another fifty were only slightly damaged; adding to the damages caused to the surrounding buildings, track and the like, as well as the loss of freight, over $100,000, over $10,000,000 with inflation, worth of damage was done. 

Initially, the cause of the blast was believed to be one of the cases of vigorite falling over when the box car was bumped in the shunting process; however, an inquest into the disaster revealed the more likely cause of powder leaking onto the track and under the wheels.  Further investigation revealed that the vigorite wasimproperly labelled as rough blasting powder and placed on a common box car; inappropriate for the

transportation of such a volatile substance.