Explosion of the Oscar, 1913

Posted by Gerry Thomasen on Tuesday, January 22nd, 2008 at 7:41pm.

If you live in Nanaimo and haven't heard this story...

1910:
The scene: An explosives factory above the shore of Departure Bay, at the bottom of today's Cilaire neighbourhood. (Cilaire is named for the last powder works to occupy the space.)

What happened: An explosion ripped the place apart. It was so powerful that it wrapped a rail around a tree - here's a photo:

Rail wrapped around tree trunk

That explosion also killed five men. Three kilometers away, the people of Nanaimo thought there had been another disaster in the mines underground.

1913:

Jan01: A new four-sided clock, Nanaimo's pride and joy, is set in motion for the first time on the (already old) sandstone post office overlooking the harbour on Front St.
Here's a photo of that post office (I freaking love this building, made from local sandstone - but it was demolished in the 1950s because it was "outdated"):

Dominion Post Office, Nanaimo

Jan15:
The scene: The steamer SS Oscar was packed with almost two thousand kegs of dynamite from the (rebuilt) explosives factory in Departure Bay, and sailed off toward the far side of Gabriola, into a storm. As the ship was out near the Entrance Island lighthouse 10 km from Nanaimo, a fire broke out in the ship's hold. The captain decided to bring her around, and made a very stressful run for the beach on the south end of Protection Island. The sailors ran the ship aground on the sandstone and descended into the hundreds-of-feet-deep Protection Island mine shaft.

What happened: The sailors were smart to hide in the mine. The explosion was the largest in the world to date - its record was broken 4 years later by the Halifax explosion.

The blast flattened most of the trees on Protection Island and sent bits of shrapnel all the way to Nanaimo. A piece of the ship sailed all the way over the island, across the harbour, and through the roof of a church in town. I heard that the mayor saw the light from the explosion, and stood up to see, and then of course the blast arrived, smashing all the glass inward - I'm not sure how hurt he was. Even the students huddled around the woodstove at Fairview School, way up past Pine Street, were showered with glass from their windows.

I moderated a forum when this was written in 2008; here is what two forum users had to say:

"Lots of Oscar's metal bits are still on the tidal shelf. Bolts with nuts and other rusted fittings are found in one concentrated section between the Lighthouse and Smuggler's Park." (user: keeha)

"There is a huge hole in the beach floor at low tide areas-best seen if you scuba dive. The foundations of buildings were shaken/cracked and most windows in what is now downtown were broken. Fireplaces had bricks come loose. Schools were closed." (user: Dog Lover)

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