In 1910 an explosion at the Departure Bay powderworks wrapped a rail around a tree it was so powerful. (submitted)

In 1910 an explosion at the Departure Bay powderworks wrapped a rail around a tree it was so powerful. (submitted)

T.W. Paterson column: Nanaimo’s biggest bang was a close call

Remembering when a ship-turned bomb exploded on Protection Island

Before joining his crew, Capt. McDonald jammed his telescope in the wheel so as to keep the Oscar, now a floating bomb, aimed at nearby Protection Island.

Snow was falling by mid-day, Jan. 14, 1913, as the small coastal freighter Oscar slipped her moorings from the Western Fuel Co. wharf where she’d just bunkered 15 tons of coal.

Vancouver-bound from Victoria, she was laden with general cargo and 1,900 cases of dynamite and black powder — enough explosive power to blow her out of the water and level several city blocks if the Oscar were so unfortunate as to explode while in Nanaimo Harbour.

It so happened that S.S. Oscar was indeed about to blow her top, and with incredible fury.

Off Entrance Island, Capt. Alex McDonald hailed an incoming ship; upon being told that it was blowing heavily in the Strait of Georgia, he decided to wait it out by returning to Nanaimo. But, as the Oscar put about, he was informed that a fire had erupted in the ship’s aft bunkers.

Likely the result of spontaneous combustion, the fire couldn’t be fought because the fire hoses had been drained so they wouldn’t freeze.

For a man with more than 50 tons of dynamite and powder below deck, McDonald met the emergency coolly. But in their haste to lower the lifeboat, the five crewmen forgot to secure the line to the ship and it drifted away, so they huddled in the bow. Before joining them, McDonald jammed his telescope in the wheel so as to keep his floating bomb, which was still underway, aimed at nearby Protection Island. It, fortunately, was sparsely settled.

As the Oscar scrunched her bow on the sandstone shore, McDonald ordered his five-man crew to abandon ship. They didn’t even get their feet wet when they scrambled down a rope ladder and ran, waving their arms and shouting, for the shelter of the Western Fuel Co.’s mine shaft, three-quarters of a mile distant.

There was no warning Nanaimo residents of the impending blast – hardly even enough time to explain themselves to the power-house engineer on duty, who was hard of hearing, to boot, and his crew of Chinese stokers.

Before they could take refuge below, a blinding flash was followed by a thundering roar, and all were thrown to the ground, where they lay in a shower of debris.

The blast levelled most of the island’s trees, showered the city with fine shrapnel, and shook most of the city. Nanaimo, no stranger to mine explosions — even a detonating cannon ball, and a series of powderworks mishaps — lost most of its downtown windows, and numerous brick chimneys were cracked. Pedestrians had to jump for their lives out of the way of panicked and stampeding horses.

Mayor John Shaw, dining at the Windsor Hotel on Church Street, was one of the miraculously few casualties, suffering severe cuts to his face when all the seaside windows, valued at $4,000, were blown in. On Protection Island, blacksmith Dan Gray would lose the sight in one eye.

“I can tell you, I was quite sure it was the end of the world,” Cuthbert M. Brown recounted more than half a century after. Then a day-schooler at St. Ann’s Convent, he vividly remembered the flash, the BANG!, the raining down of shattered glass, “all mixed with the shrieks of teachers and students alike. I was too speechless to utter a sound.”

It was hours before stunned Nanaimo citizens knew for sure what had happened, that it wasn’t another mining disaster.

Mr. Brown, looking back, thought it likely that the “weather and heavy blanket of snow had a lot to do with minimizing the effect”.

The shock wave caused damage as much as five miles distant, the post office clock stopped at precisely 1:55 p.m., and police guards had to be stationed about windowless businesses.

Thirteen hundred feet down, the No. 1 Mine which was connected beneath the harbour to the Protection Island shaft, was fractured in numerous places, but quick action in sealing the resulting leaks prevented what could have been a catastrophe for the hundreds of miners on shift. As it was, damages totalled $125,000, then a major sum.

In that golden age, explosives carrying vessels were permitted to enter congested harbours to deliver their cargoes; but they weren’t to tie up at dockside although they could, as had the Oscar, put in to load coal. Capt. McDonald just happened to have such a deadly cargo when he recharged his bunkers; for his handling of the Oscar from the time he was informed of fire in the bunkers, to the moment he and his crew abandoned ship, he received no official censure.

Nanaimo was no stranger to mine explosions caused by gas or coal dust — the almost inevitable, and lethal, by-products of the collieries which were the Hub City’s economic backbone. And, because the mines required explosives, particularly black powder, local companies provided further economic employment and benefits by manufacturing powder and dynamite using nitroglycerine — another occupational hazard over the years.

(No trace was ever found of a teamster, his horse or wagon, just a massive crater in the road, after his load of nitro was detonated, it was surmised, by his hitting a pothole.)

Over a period of seven years, 1911-1918, the Nanaimo Free Press reported 10 accidents involving the manufacture and shipping of high explosives, besides the Oscar incident:

December 1907 – A blast demolished buildings and caused $20,000 damage.

May 1910 – five workers were killed when the Departure Bay powderworks exploded.

April 1911 – A blast at the Protection Island powder magazine killed one worker.

October 1911 – There was an explosion, fortunately of lesser consequence and no fatalities, at the Northfield works.

December 22, 1911 – three workers were killed in an explosion at the Departure Bay works.

April 1912 – Supt. W.A. Wilson died in an explosion.

June 1912 – In an exception to accidents involving explosives, a burst boiler killed one man at the Union Brewery.

January 1913 – The grounding and exploding of the S.S. Oscar, as described above.

July 1913 – Yet another explosion, this one at the Canadian Explosives plant, Northfield.

November 1918 – Two more were killed in a blast at the Giant Powder Works.

In short, Nanaimo suffered a succession of non-coal mine related fireworks that killed nine people and caused a fortune in damaged properties. But that was long ago and, more than a century later, Protection Islanders are said to be “notoriously fond of their Oscar history”.

www.twpaterson.com

history

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Capt. Bryun Ashlie, left, and Lieut. Stu Kenning, of Nanaimo Fire Rescue, tackle fires burning in two shopping carts in St. George Ravine Park, Thursday afternoon. The cause of the fire, which destroyed both carts and their contents, is undetermined. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)
Shopping carts found burning in Nanaimo park

Firefighters douse flaming carts and contents on asphalt pathway

Nanaimo RCMP are looking for a motorcyclist who refused to stop for police near the Nanaimo River Road and White Rapids Road intersection on April 10. (Photo submitted)
Nanaimo RCMP seek ‘stunting’ motorcyclist, who fled from police

Rider spotted near intersection of Nanaimo River Road and White Rapids Road April 10

Nanaimo RCMP say a man was injured while pouring gunpowder on a backyard fire in Harewood on Wednesday, April 21. (File photo)
Nanaimo man hospitalized after pouring gunpowder onto backyard fire

RCMP investigating explosion in Harewood also came across a still for making alcohol on the property

A B.C. Centre for Disease Control map shows new COVID-19 cases by local health area for the week of April 11-17. (BCCDC image)
Nanaimo sees fewest new COVID-19 cases since mid January

B.C. Centre for Disease Control reports 31 new COVID-19 cases in Greater Nanaimo from April 11-17

Island Health has issued an overdose advisory for Nanaimo. (Black Press Media file photo)
Overdose advisory issued for Nanaimo

Island Health warns of ‘toxic drug supply’ in Nanaimo, Victoria, the Comox Valley and Campbell River

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and United States President Joe Biden smile as they say farewell following a virtual joint statement in Ottawa, Tuesday, February 23, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Trudeau pledges to cut emissions by 40% to 45% by 2030, short of U.S. goal

Trudeau announced target during a virtual climate summit convened by U.S. President Joe Biden

MLA Shirley Bond, right, answers questions during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on February 19, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Former B.C. gaming minister says she wasn’t told directly about dirty cash flowing to casinos

Shirley Bond said Thursday civil forfeiture, gang violence and gambling addiction were also major concerns in 2011

RCMP Constable Etsell speaks to tourists leaving the area at a police roadblock on Westside Road south of Fintry, B.C., Thursday, July 23, 2009. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Yvonne Berg
B.C. police say they take ‘exception’ to conducting roadblocks limiting travel

Asking the police to enforce roadblocks exposes officers to further risk and possible COVID-19 infections, says federation president Brian Sauve

As part of the province’s strategy to combat the opioid overdose crisis, take-home naloxone kits have been distributed throughout the province. (Courtesy of Gaëlle Nicolussi)
Vancouver Island could be at its worst point of overdose crises yet: medical health officer

Island Health issued overdose advisories for Victoria, various communities in the last two weeks

The conservation service confirmed they do not relocate cougars from settled areas but that euthanasia is not necessarily the fate for an animal in the Fanny Bay area. The hope is that the animal will move on to wild areas. (File photo)
Woman hopes cat-stalking Fanny Bay cougar can avoid euthanization

Conservation officers do not relocate the animals from Vancouver Island

Tofino residents expressed frustration over a recent post by Long Beach Lodge owner Tim Hackett that falsely claimed all residents have been vaccinated. (Westerly file photo)
Resort owner apologizes for suggesting Tofino is safe to travel to

Long Beach Lodge owner Tim Hackett apologizes to community and visitors

BC Hydro released a survey Thursday, April 22. It found that many British Columbians are unintentionally contributing to climate change with their yard maintenance choices. (Pixabay)
Spend a lot of time doing yard work? It might be contributing to climate change

Recent BC Hydro survey finds 60% of homeowners still use gas-powered lawnmowers and yard equipment

Journal de Montreal is seen in Montreal, on Thursday, April 22, 2021. The daily newspaper uses a file picture of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dressed in traditional Indian clothing during his trip to India to illustrate a story on the Indian variant of the coronavirus. Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press
Montreal newspaper blasted for front-page photo of Trudeau in India

Trudeau is wearing traditional Indian clothes and holding his hands together in prayer beside a caption that reads, ‘The Indian variant has arrived’

Police executed a search warrant at the Devils Army Clubhouse on Petersen road in Campbell River on August 10, 2017.
Murder trial: Victim left to conclude out-of-court settlement on the day he disappeared

Trial of Richard Alexander in death of John Dillon Brown continues in B.C. Supreme Court in Victoria

Most Read