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COLUMN: Deadly cargo cost Nanaimo teamster his life

Kegs of blasting powder were transported by horse and wagon, writes historian T.W. Paterson
Explosives such as dynamite and nitroglycerin were used extensively in things like mining, but their use, manufacture and transport were always risky. (Library of Congress photo)

To ensure that they couldn’t come into contact with each other in the course of their jostling journey, the jars of nitroglycerine were secured in place by a wooden framework.

How does that classic Tennessee Ernie Ford song go? “If Saint Peter calls me, I can’t go; I owe my soul to the company store.”

He was referring to the fact that a coal miner drew credit from his employer, and to the sadder fact that, sometimes, he slipped backwards to the point of becoming an indentured servant.

So an announcement in the Oct. 10, 1890 Nanaimo Free Press that local miners, who were charged as much as $4 per keg for blasting powder, would soon be able to purchase directly from the Hamilton Powder Co. for $2.50 a keg must have been received as good news.

Until completion of the CPR in 1885, Nanaimo collieries seem to have imported their powder all the way from Britain via Cape Horn, perhaps prompting the Hamilton Co., a Montreal subsidiary of the Nobel Explosives Co. of Ardeer, Scotland, near Glasgow, to send their west coast sales manager, H.G. Scott, to Nanaimo on a scouting expedition. He liked what he saw and purchased 165 acres at Northfield, near the Northfield Mine.

W.R. Young, superintendent, and W. Hugh, foreman, followed with several railway cars loaded with equipment and materials. “J.B. Clair had the contract to clear 10 acres on which to build storehouses and other buildings of brick for the mill boiler and powder plant,” the late Nanaimo historian John Cass noted some years ago. “Each of the mixing buildings in the process of manufacturing had an iron roof laid down in such a way that the roof would go skywards in case of an explosion. A small wharf was built at Departure Bay to receive imported raw materials. The first steamer to berth was the S.S. Robert Dunsmuir.”

Most of the machinery was shipped in from the head office in Scotland and the major construction of solid brick buildings employed 25 men. One housed the 75 h.p. single-cylinder horizontal engine and boiler room. As no electricity was used in the plant for fear of igniting the dust-laden air, the manufacturing and mixing process was conducted by an ingenious system of ropes and pulleys that were further challenged in their efficiency by the fact that all buildings were surrounded by high earthen bunkers.

Well distant from all of them was the beehive kiln in which alder and maple were burned to produce charcoal; once the company’s property was exhausted of its supply, logging operations moved to the Tom Cassidy farm until that source, too, was exhausted, and on-site making of charcoal was discontinued.

In the pulverizing house, the mixing of sulphur, charcoal and saltpetre (potassium nitrate) was done in a large drum, iron balls rendering the ingredients into fine powder. Thence they passed on to the amalgamator house for final blending and compression by hydraulic press into cakes 18 inches square, half an inch thick and as hard and black as slate. The next step was the corning mill where brass-toothed rollers cracked the slabs into the size of kernels of corn, hence its being known as the corning mill. Any particles which escaped this stage of the process were returned to the pressroom for a second go-round.

In the glaze mill, the powder grains were placed in revolving wooden barrels with graphite which gave them a waterproof coating. Final step of the process was to pack the powder in 25-pound kegs, also manufactured on-site. Total production cost of a keg of powder was $1 which wholesaled at $1.75 and was retailed to miners at $2 -$2.25. As stated in the Free Press, this was a substantial saving over the $4 previously charged by the companies.

It’s fascinating to note that, at the beginning of each production run, all unnecessary personnel evacuated the plant as the machinery was fired up. If nothing untoward happened, they returned to their work!

It’s even more intriguing to realize that, until it was prohibited by law in 1898, the Hamilton Co. shipped its products, often hundreds of kegs at a time, by horse and wagon on public roads to Departure Bay. They brought their Chilean nitrates in by the same means!

Previously, the Giant Powder Co., the first in North America to acquire manufacturing rights to Alfred Nobel’s dynamite, had established at Emory Creek, near Yale, later at Telegraph Bay, near Victoria. The California firm had originally been drawn to the province by construction of the CPR through the Fraser Canyon where, legend has it, blasting accidents killed a Chinese navvie for every mile of track.

When we consider that both companies hauled their volatile ingredients for black powder and nitroglycerine to and from Departure Bay and downtown Nanaimo’s Cameron Island by horse and wagon, the wonder is that there weren’t numerous explosives-caused tragedies. A sad exception was 30-year-old teamster Austin Stevenson who was hauling the deadly white liquid, nitroglycerine, for his employers, Canadian Explosives Ltd., the corporate child of a merger between the Hamilton Co. and the American petro-chemical giant, Dupont Co. His route took him from the dynamite plant at Departure Bay to the powder works at Northfielld.

On the fateful morning of April 16, 1896, Stevenson loaded his wagon with four large jars of nitroglycerine (400 pounds worth $175). Each jar was cradled in a three-inch bed of sawdust and packed in gunny-sack material. To ensure that they couldn’t come into contact with each other in the course of their jostling journey, the jars were secured in place by a wooden framework. The entire weight of the load came well within the wagon’s legal limit of 1,500 pounds.

After rechecking his brakes and the harness of the single horse, Stevenson headed out. He slowly passed an E&N Railway section gang, fields of cattle and (it would come out at the inquest) a salesman resting under a tree. He’d later testify that, as he drowsily watched the wagon (from a safe distance, happily for him), it crossed the railway grade with a slight bumping motion.

Suddenly, there was a terrific explosion, the force of the blast throwing up a curtain of dust and bowling the salesman over backwards.

When he picked himself up, all he could see was a 150-foot diameter hole, six feet deep, in the roadway and a spiral of blue smoke. Nearby trees were uprooted or denuded of their foliage, grazing cows were stunned, neighbouring houses had their windows blown out and, it was later claimed, some had their foundations cracked. The wagon had been reduced to kindling. The horse, found nearby, was mortally wounded and had to be put down. No trace was ever found of Austin Stevenson.

As if all this weren’t dramatic enough, the coroner’s jury had to be assured there was no danger after they threatened to flee the building during company manager W.A. Young’s demonstration of a clear liquid which he identified as nitroglycerine. The jury returned a verdict of accidental death and, instead of finding fault with the system of transporting high explosives through residential areas on public thoroughfares, merely recommended that the roads be improved before shipments resumed.

This was the second fatality involving nitroglycerine in five months. There were others over the years, by far the worst being the blast of the dynamite-laden ship Oscar off Protection Island, in 1913. Less than a year after the Austin Stevenson tragedy, a blast at the nitro works blew the roof off the building but somehow failed to detonate a further 20 jars (2,000 pounds!).

Another near-miss on record involved human error while working with the finished product. In the spring of 1891 workmen were removing rock on Victoria Road. Because of unseasonably cold temperatures, they warmed themselves beside a fire. They also warmed up their dynamite — by body heat, placing several sticks under their clothing as they huddled around the flames.

Their supervisor, deeming this to be unsafe practice, advised them to place the dynamite in a double-lined pot and warm it beside the fire. The resulting blast — surprise! — blew out almost 100 windows in nearby houses. Incredibly, no one was hurt.