Young West Garafraxa man died in gravel pit accident in 1924

Today the gravel pit industry is highly regulated, and new pits are licensed only after lengthy study and analysis.

Decades ago that was not the case. Contractors and road builders liked to secure their gravel as close to its ultimate destination as possible.

With the geological formations found in Wellington County, that meant a large number of small pits. Glaciation resulted in numerous gravel deposits in this area, some small in size, and a smaller number of vast ones. Gravel quality can vary greatly, as can the texture and stone content of the deposits.

Decades ago there were no licensing and inspection requirements. Contractors, and especially road builders, would make agreements, often informal, for access to gravel deposits. Often a roadside pit would be open only as long as a nearby road project was under way. Such pits can be identified all over the county.

Gravel demands have varied greatly over the years. Masons in the 19th century wanted a sandy material for mortar. Builders of major roads wanted a gravelly material as a road surface. They rarely had strict standards. Road builders would simply pull out the larger rocks and toss them to the side of the roadway.

By 1900 most roads had at least a little gravel to improve the drainage, but it was typically a very thin coat that needed to be augmented with a fresh layer of gravel every few years. In the early 20th century demand exploded, with the increased use of concrete in construction and an almost insatiable demand from road builders.

One of those small pits operated in West Garafraxa in 1924. On Jan. 6, 1924, a gang of men was at work in a small pit. The weather was sufficiently co-operative to support such winter work.

Two men, Harold Vrooman and Herb Wilson, were working at the bottom of the pit, loading a wagon by shovel. Two other workers, Albert Tilley and William Hammill, were at work immediately above them.

The foreman had instructed them to remove an overhanging ledge of gravel to eliminate a dangerous situation. They believed that the ground was solidly frozen, and presented no danger to them.

But in a blink of an eye, the frozen gravel proved to have no strength to support Tilley and Hammill. Part of the ledge broke away, sending Tilley to the lower level. He lay on the ground, unconscious.

As the other men gathered around he slowly stirred back to life. Most of the men thought he had fainted. Soon he was sitting up, seemingly none the worse for wear except for a cut on his head.

One of the other workers said that Tilley had struck the end of his pick as he fell. The crew had some first aid supplies on the site, and a couple of co-workers wrapped a bandage around the wound.

Tilley, whose main task was driving a team hauling wagon loads of gravel, insisted that he had not been badly hurt, and wanted to carry on with his job. No one else thought that his wound might be serious.

A few minutes later Tilley passed his father, who was at work with a gang working on the road. His father noticed that his head was bleeding. Albert told his father that he had been hit on the head with a pick by Bill Hammill, but that it was accidental and they had not been quarreling. Albert said he felt very cold, and proceeded to go home for the day.

Tilley continued to go about his usual routine for the next few days, but the wound obviously was not healing, and he continued to complain of weak and cold spells. After a week he went to Fergus for a consultation with Dr. Abraham Groves. The doctor removed some pieces of bone and tried to dress the wound as best he could. He told Tilley that the wound was far more serious than he had assumed.

Tilley’s condition continued to deteriorate. He took to his bed, and on Feb. 7 he died, four months past his 19th birthday.

Dr. Norman Kyle, the coroner, called an inquest, which convened on Feb. 14 at the meeting hall in the basement of the Fergus library. The jury consisted largely of Fergus men, several of whom, such as John Richardson, David Rea, Henry Alpaugh, Lawson Steele and William Rutherford, were prominent in the community. Crown Attorney Kearns was present, as were lawyers representing William Hammill and the County of Wellington, which was the operator of the gravel pit.

Most of the testimony was straightforward. There was some contradictory testimony, as might be expected from an incident that happened so quickly and unexpectedly. The workers all testified that there had been no quarreling, and that Tilley’s injury had been an accidental one.

Perhaps the most interesting testimony came from Dr. Groves who, in his usual form, described the wound and his treatment in the goriest of detail, all the while speaking in a deadpan and unemotional manner.

Dr. Groves said that the wound was a deep one, penetrating more than two inches through the skull and into the brain. The wound was toward the rear of the right side of the head, and had obviously been the result of a sharp object. He said it was consistent with a blow from the sharp end of a pick.

He operated on the wound, Dr. Groves said, cleaning the wound and removing a number of loose pieces of bone. He said that the wound improved greatly for a time, but then inflammation set in, resulting in death.

George Tilley, the dead boy’s father, told the story of encountering his son after the accident. Like all the others, he had believed the injury was a trivial accident at the time. He made no hint that it was the result of a quarrel or animosity between his son and other workers.

William Hammill’s testimony was similar to that of his co-workers. He insisted that his axe had not struck Tilley, intentionally or otherwise. He said that since the accident he had never said to anyone that his axe had injured Tilley.

That directly contradicted the evidence of Fred Keating and other witnesses that Hammill had admitted to them that he had struck Tilley. Another witness Robert Barber, followed Keating. He denied Keating’s statement. But Barber was Hammill’s brother-in-law, and that fact undermined his testimony in the eyes of the jury.

In the end, it made little difference. The jury retired to deliberate, and in 15 minutes they were back in the court room, which was packed with residents of Fergus and West Garafraxa. Their verdict was that Tilley had died as the results of “an injury to the skull produced accidentally by a pick in the hands of William Hammill.”

So ended one of the more bizarre of accidents in the annals of the construction industry locally. It was a lesson that cautious procedures must always be applied, and that all injuries should be treated promptly by qualified medical people.


Stephen Thorning