Protection Island to commemorate 100th anniversary of explosion of steamer laden with dynamite

NANAIMO — It was a snowy afternoon in Nanaimo on Jan. 14, 1913, and Mayor John Shaw was enjoying an afternoon meal at the Windsor Hotel on Church Street. Suddenly, a massive explosion shattered the calm.

The windows in practically every store downtown blew out. Pedestrians scattered throughout the streets in a panic, trying to avoid horses that had broken loose and were running wild down Commercial Street.

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Shaw managed to escape from the Windsor, which had borne the brunt of the impact, but he was injured when broken glass severely cut his face. Destruction was everywhere — including at the opera house, where the manager narrowly missed being hit by bricks tumbling through the roof, and at Middle Ward School, where children huddled together to avoid the falling glass.

A Nanaimo Free Press reporter noted the time stopped on the post office’s shattered clock face fronting the harbour: 1:55 p.m. This was the moment the Oscar, a steamer laden with dynamite and bound for Vancouver, exploded just off Gallows Point on Protection Island.

The number of ships wrecked along the B.C. coast runs into the thousands. Many of these went down in the treacherous waters around Vancouver Island, especially along the south and west sides, leading U.S. historian David Wilma, among others, to dub it “the Graveyard of the Pacific.”

Protection Island is the smaller of the two islands in Nanaimo Harbour. It is home to about 300 people.

The area around Nanaimo boasts a rich archaeological history. And in celebration of National Archaeology Day during the weekend, the Archaeological Society of B.C. offered a walking tour of downtown heritage sites that concluded at the Nanaimo Museum with a look at local underwater history.

The museum currently has artifacts on loan from the Vancouver Maritime Museum from two other ships: the Zephyr, which was transporting Newcastle Island sandstone to San Francisco, and the Ericsson, which was sailing to Nanaimo from San Francisco to get coal.

Nanaimo’s underwater heritage is the source of many yarns and colourful stories. But embedded in the wrecks lie deeper lessons, not least of which are how these shipwrecks affected the governance of harbour safety.

It is impossible to have a complete log of all the wrecked ships along the Island’s coastline that are connected to Nanaimo. However, for Nanaimo-area residents, the Oscar is perhaps the most famous.

“The captain noticed smoke coming from the stern, which was where the engine was — it was a steam engine,” said Nanaimo Museum curator David Hill-Turner, who has made numerous dives down to the site where the Oscar is believed to have exploded, searching for artifacts.

He said the Oscar, which was built in 1897, had loaded up with 50 tons of dynamite from where it was made in Telegraph Cove, near Victoria. It had just passed Protection Island on its way to Vancouver when it came across a boat that informed the crew the open sea was too rough and that they should turn back.

It was near Entrance Island that they discovered the fire in the coal bunkers.

It was not uncommon in those days for coal to spontaneously combust, said local historian and former B.C. Ferries chief engineer Parker Williams. He added that because of the freezing weather, they had likely drained the fire lines so they wouldn’t freeze.

“They decided they would try to run back to Nanaimo — a smart thing to do,” said Hill-Turner.

“First they tried to launch the lifeboat, but somebody forgot to tie the other end to the rope to the ship and so it floated off into the snowstorm.”

The crew of six then went into the bow, the farthest point from the fire.

As the boat began to drift, the captain climbed over the stern and into the wheelhouse, where he jammed his telescope into the wheel to steady it.

“The ship ran ashore on Protection Island. The crew had taken a ladder with them so they were able to scramble down onto the island and ran for the mine, which was down at Gallows Point.

“They had just got to the mine when the ship blew up.”

Hill-Turner said the effect of the explosion was such that it fractured rock underneath the ship all the way down to where men were working in the mine, at 1,300 feet below sea level.

They had to evacuate the area because the mine started to flood.

Though there were injuries, perhaps the worst being that of the Protection Island blacksmith Dan Grey, who lost an eye, there were no fatalities.

The damage was extensive, estimated at $100,000 in total. The Windsor estimated their losses at $4,000 and the courthouse at $2,000, though Protection Island was the heaviest hit with damages estimated at $25,000.

However, Nanaimo locals seemed to demonstrate a remarkable sense of pluck about the incident, with one advertisement in the Jan. 16, 1913, edition of the Nanaimo Free Press for McRae and Lucier stating merrily: “The explosion put a crimp in ‘our front’ but our big January clearance sale … is still going on!” Questions were quick in arising.

In a Free Press editorial the next day, harbourmaster Knarston was interviewed, and calls made to tighten regulations. Until that point, there were laws around the landing of ships with explosive materials, but not vessels that were picking up coal to refuel, like the Oscar, that happened to have explosive materials on board.

“Federal government put in new regulation that ships with anything explosive were to be kept in the harbour, not anchored right at the wharf,” said Christine Meutzner, manager of Nanaimo Community Archives, citing A Trade of Such Terrible Possibilities: Outcomes of the SS Oscar Explosion, a 2003 paper by Tracy Moss.

“After the explosion, they sort of realized they needed to have rules.”

Meutzner said the captain Alexander McDonald and crew were not found at fault, as they were simply following the rules, such as they were at that time.

It seemed to be a symbolic event, added Meutzner, considering that much of the simmering unrest among miners also centred around safety concerns.

“It was an interesting confluence of events, the fact that they were in middle of the big labour strike, in which one of the issues was workers’ safety. It's almost like the midst of all that together spurred new laws,” said Meutzner.

“The Oscar was like a giant symbol in the harbour, of how little there was in terms of true safety for workers.”

Protection Islanders are notoriously fond of their Oscar history. Their museum contains various artifacts and photos of its sister ship, and museum curator, musician Rick Scott, even organized a hugely popular musical performance that was showcased on the island 10 years ago for the 90th anniversary of the explosion.

“When I tour, what I always do is I find a museum in the town that I’m in, because the museum tells me who these people are, really, where they came from,” said Scott, about the importance of cultural history. “If you don't document [history], it gets warped.”

Scott said they are “definitely” planning an event for the 100th anniversary on Jan. 13, 2013, but he is not yet certain what it will be.

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