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”.