Oct. 27, 1890: a very bad day for boiler explosions

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.

The most ubiquitous of 19th century industry in Wellington was the sawmill.

I am not aware of anyone having compiled a complete list of them, and I am unlikely to do so myself.

At the peak of the industry, every township had at least a couple, and some a half dozen or more. Most operated for only a few years, and some for just a single season.

Those that persisted tended to be the ones branching into manufacturing, particularly doors, windows and moldings. Profit margins were greater on these lines than on rough sawn lumber. As well, these mills provided many more jobs, multiplying their impact on the local economy.

Among the latter group was Hugh MacDonald of Belwood. He established a sawmill on the north end of Broadway, Belwood’s main street, in 1874. Shortly afterward he expanded, adding a planing mill along with window sash and door making. Construction in Garafraxa was then enjoying a boom, as farmers built new residences for themselves.

McDonald did well during his first 10 or 12 years. Some accounts put his workforce at 40, but this is unlikely. A dozen would be a more reasonable figure. Even so, McDonald was still the largest employer in the hamlet.

Like others in the industry, McDonald used second hand power equipment. He set up his boiler and steam engine in a separate building, some distance from the main factory.

In case of disaster, firefighters stood a much better chance with the boiler and engine in their own structure. There were no government inspections of boilers then, and the men who worked around them assumed a cavalier attitude regarding safety.

In the fall of 1890, McDonald noticed a defect in the steam dome of his boiler. The metal seemed to be failing around the housing. Steam hissed constantly through a gap. In the second week of October 1890, McDonald asked a travelling machinist, who happened to be staying at Sargent’s Hotel next door, to have a look at the boiler. The machinist assured McDonald that there was a potential problem, but no immediate danger. Hugh decided to have it repaired when he got around to it, and went on with his business.

October 27, 1890 unfolded as a very quiet day in Belwood. A good thing too. At about 4pm, the steam dome gave way, ripping the upper part of the boiler into pieces as the steam pressure dropped instantly. The force of the explosion blew straight up, demolishing the roof of the power house. Farmers several miles away heard the boom.

Debris scattered everywhere. A piece of the boiler, at least 100 pounds in weight, crashed through the roof of Jim Forster’s woodshed adjoining his house nearby. Some boys later found the whistle in a field.

Other pieces of iron showered down on Broadway, which, through happy circumstance, was entirely devoid of people.

Wood pieces and boards from the roof shot around Belwood like arrows, arcing over nearby residences. One board hit the township hall, at least 500 feet away.

Miraculously, neither man nor beast received a scratch. None of McDonald’s employees were in the power house at the time of the explosion. The factory, only a few feet away, did not suffer even a broken window. All McDonald’s employees were working inside at the time of the eruption.

The power house offered quite a spectacle when the men rushed out to see what happened. It looked perfectly normal, other than the fact that there was no sign of a roof, and that the iron chimney lay on the ground in pieces, its heat causing occasional wisps of smoke. The steam engine and flywheel, right beside the boiler, sat untouched.

Hugh McDonald assessed the damage, and put his estimate of the repair costs at $100 to $150. Two weeks later, he had the boiler repaired, a new roof on the building, and was back in full production.

His excitement did not end with the repairs. Barely a week after the explosion, he announced his intention to stand for reeve of West Garafraxa in the next election. McDonald had already served as a school trustee and several terms on council. He did no active campaigning himself. A former reeve, R.J. Black, ran his campaign for him.

The circumstances surrounding McDonald’s decision to run became the main issue of a very heated campaign.

Though out of politics, many believed that R.J. Black still wanted to run the council, and that McDonald was his stooge. Late on the Jan. 5 polling day McDonald knew his fate: the electorate had stood by the incumbent reeve, Tom Dryden, by a vote of 381-238.

The boiler explosion and bitter campaign produced the two most exciting months in McDonald’s life. Defeated for public office, he returned his attention to the factory, continuing to produce building materials until May 1901.

Though the economy improved in the late 1890s, the profitability of McDonald’s sash and door factory did not. He decided to throw in the towel the year he turned 60.

The Orangeville casket works purchased most of the equipment in the factory.

Hugh McDonald continued to live in Belwood for the three decades of his retirement, in a house a short distance from the factory. He died there in 1934.

Though not every day occurrences, boiler explosions at sawmills and planing mills were by no means rare. Given the decrepit equipment frequently employed, and the cavalier attitudes to safety and maintenance, it is a wonder they were not more common.

Oct. 27, 1890 was a day marked by strange coincidence. About six hours before the top of Hugh McDonald’s boiler blew off, another explosion rocked the saw and planing mill complex of Robert Stewart and Co. in Guelph. Stewart’s was by far the largest business of its type in the county, many times the size of McDonald’s operation.

The fireman had shut down one of the Stewart boilers for maintenance. A foreman assigned two men, Jim Condy and Levi Peer, to clean out the firebox and flues of accumulated scale.

One of the men climbed into the firebox, and reached for a candle passed by the other. They didn’t realize that unburned gas had accumulated at the top of the interior.

The candle flame detonated the gas. The resulting explosion blew the boiler room doors off their hinges. Hot gasses ignited the sawdust that lay atop everything, and flames soon began licking at the beams of the building. Both Condy and Peer received some bad burns to their faces and hands.

That explosion quickly brought other employees to the scene, and soon a bucket brigade had much of the fire extinguished.

A few minutes later the Guelph fire department arrived to finish the job.

Both those explosions resulted in little property damage or loss of life, though Condy and Peer spent many painful weeks recovering.

There were other major explosions in saw and planing mills, but this was the only time when two occurred the same day.

The others are stories for a future time.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Aug. 2, 2002.

Thorning Revisited