General store in Hillsburgh exploded in 1880

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.
Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

Explosions have been the subject of this column on three or four occasions.

All of those involved boilers, either running out of water or failing mechanically. As far as I am aware, in all of Wellington’s history there has been only one explosion involving a store. That one happened on the morning of Sept. 7, 1880, in Hillsburgh.

In 1880, How’s General Store in Hillsburgh was the oldest retail establishment in the village, and except for an establishment in Ballinafad, the oldest in the whole township. In the fall of 1821, William How was the first person to take up land in the upper portion of the township. His original holding, Lots 22 and 23, Concession 7, would eventually be the southern portion of the village.

Some time in 1822 or 1823, How opened a general store to serve the new arrivals in the neighbourhood. His establishment prospered, and the settlement around it quickly gained the name “Howville.”

This name appeared on few maps. A later arrival in the area, Nazareth Hill, surveyed some of the land to the north of How’s holdings into village lots, and slapped the name “Hillsburg” on his creation. When the government opened a post office there, the name became “Hillsburgh.”

After William How died, his four sons carried on with the family farm and the store. By the 1860s, the How family was in the ascendancy again. The brothers operated a small flour mill, and the store did a better business when the Hillsburgh post office moved there in 1863. By then the original log building had become inadequate. The How brothers constructed a larger two-storey building just to the north of the original store.

William How Jr. resigned as postmaster in 1879, and the office moved to Bill Donaldson’s general store, in the upper part of the village. His son, Edward How, then took over as the manager of the family emporium.

It was young Ed who presided over the most spectacular day in the history of How’s store.

Sept. 7, 1880 began as a quiet Tuesday morning in the store. Customers called in sporadically. Two farmers, George Lang and Bill Everdale, lingered in the store, sitting in chairs in the centre of the store beside the stove to smoke pipes and exchange stories.

Among other items, Ed How sold gunpowder. It came in wooden kegs, and he kept an open keg under the counter to simplify the task of measuring the product for customers. A piece of paper covered the keg to prevent anything from falling into the powder. The night before, Ed had rolled an open keg to a different position under the counter. In doing so, he seems to have spilled a little on the floor.

Most general stores stocked gunpowder in the late 19th century. Farmers used it not only for their firearms, but as an explosive in the removal of stumps.

Dynamite did not come on the market until later in the 1880s. Storing open kegs in the middle of a store seems foolhardy and reckless to us now, but it was common practice in 1880.

At a few minutes before 10am, an immense explosion rocked How’s General Store. The building crumbled into a mass of splintered timber. Something had detonated the barrel of gunpowder under the counter, about 10 feet from where George Lang and Bill Everdale sat. By a miracle, neither man suffered injuries, either from the falling second floor, or from the kegs of nails beside the powder, which spewed at high speed in all directions.

By some fluke of physics, a second unopened keg of gunpowder, sitting beside the one that exploded, suffered no damage whatever.

A widow, Mrs. Hardaker, occupied the apartment above the store. At the time she was sitting directly over the gunpowder. The explosion sent her flying vertically into the ceiling. She then fell to the crumpled floor, which came to rest on the sturdy counters below. The ceiling joists acted as a bridge between the counters on either side of the store. This saved the lives of Lang and Everdale who were trapped beneath the caved-in floor. Mrs Hardaker’s fall was partially cushioned by the floor, and she limped away with only minor scrapes and bruises.

Ed How did not fare so well. The explosion lifted him off his feet, sending him backwards against some kegs and boxes at the rear of the store. He suffered no broken bones, but the burning powder scorched his legs, burned off his beard and most of his hair, and completely singed his eyebrows.

Several versions of what actually triggered the explosion circulated among village residents and the newspapers of the province. According to one account, one of the farmers carelessly tossed aside a match after lighting his pipe. The still-burning match landed on the paper covering the open keg of powder, setting it aflame. In a heroic variant of this explanation, Ed How saw what was happening, and attempted to roll the burning keg of gunpowder out the front door.

Another version had the match landing in powder on the floor, spilled there the night before when Ed How moved the keg.

Alternately, one of the farmers tapped out his pipe, sending burning tobacco embers onto the spilled powder.

Yet another explanation was that some matches, which were stored on a ledge above the gunpowder, had landed on the floor beside the keg, and that Ed How had unknowingly stepped on them, thereby igniting the powder. That is possible given the nature of the strike-anywhere matches produced in the late 19th century. Known as locofocos, these matches were made of a phosphorus compound on the end of a stick. They were unpredictable and dangerous, prone to ignite with little or no warning.

Some of the explanations may have originated under the intense questioning of insurance adjusters. Whatever the immediate cause of the explosion, the How store was reduced in a few seconds to a complete wreck.

The lack of fatalities in this incident was the most amazing part of the story. Lang and Everdale managed to crawl out from under the collapsed second-storey floor with only scratches, and Mrs. Hardaker, after hurled up and down, suffered no broken bones.

Ed How’s injuries proved to be a little more serious than first appeared. The burns on his legs and feet were deeper than he initially realized, and it seemed that the explosion had claimed his sight. A day after the explosion, the doctors attending him expressed fears that he might not survive. Gradually he regained his vigour. Vision returned to one eye, and the burns healed, though they left pronounced scars.

Still, considering the force of the explosion, he escaped lightly.

The Hows were able to salvage only a small portion of the stock. They did rebuild, and their new establishment opened for business in the fall of 1880. The Credit Valley Railway had opened at the beginning of the year, and businessmen such as the Hows could see a golden future for their ventures and for Hillsburgh generally.

The anticipated boom never materialized, though Hillsburgh did become a major shipping point for agricultural products.

How’s store remained in business for many more years, under the proprietorship of Harry How, and later his daughter Marj and her husband, Henry Beatty.

I have not been able to determine whether they continued to sell gunpowder.

*This column was originally published in the Advertiser on Jan. 10, 2003.

Thorning Revisited