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Friday, July 27, 2012

No Community is Immune from Tragedy

The collapse of a mall roof in Elliot Lake killing two people was a terrible tragedy and our sympathies and concerns go out to the families and neighbours of the deceased. No community is immune from catastrophe. They are terrible events but sometimes they bring out the best of a community and its people.

In 1923 a similar collapse occurred in Orono. It is recorded in the excellent local history book “Out of the Mists: A History of Clarke Township” by Helen Schmid and Sid Rutherford:

“A most heartrending accident occurred about 10:30a.m. on Aug. 15, 1923 when the east and west walls of the [Flax Warehouse} building under construction swayed and collapsed under the weight of the dome roof…At the sound of the first crack, Albert Living jumped clear of the building. Wilbert Scott clung to the ladder that was thrown outward by the bursting wall and landed beyond reach of the debris. Roy Thornton had a miraculous escape. From a position on the extreme height at the peak he clasped a girder which he rode safely to the ground. Other workmen falling with the walls were terribly bruised by falling blocks.”

Some of the other workers were not so lucky. Garnet Woodcock died on the site (ironically on his 25th birthday), Alfred Turner died soon after reaching the hospital and W.J Fowler died a week later from his injuries. George Key and Allin Clayton survived but had been seriously injured. When the building collapsed many local citizens arrived quickly on the scene to help. Local doctors and others from Newcastle and Pontypool were also quick to respond to the tragedy.

Rebuilding was completed in 1924 and the building, often mislabelled the Flax Mill, was used to store flax for a few short years It has had many other uses since then (blacksmith shop, dance pavilion) and can still be seen on Orono’s Main Street to this day.

Bowmanville has a German U-Boat Story too!

The possible discovery of a World War II German u-boat on the bottom of the Churchill River in Labrador reminds me of a story about Bowmanville’s German P.O.W. Camp 30. From 1941 to 1945 the Bowmanville Boys’ Training School was taken over as a P.O.W. camp. About 700 prisoners called this home for four years. One of the most famous was Otto Kretschmer, known as the Wolf of the Atlantic. He was a u-boat commander who although captured in 1941 still sunk more allied shipping than any other u-boat captain.

The prisoners were digging escape tunnels and Kretschmer was eager to return and resume his career. Canadian money, train schedules and other documents were smuggled in, civilian clothes made and plans to have a u-boat meet Kretschmer at Maisonette Point at the Bay of Chaleur, New Brunswick/Quebec were secretly made. Unfortunately the tunnels were discovered. As Daniel Hoffman wrote in his book “Ehrenwort”, “It must have been agonizing for the prisoners to know where and when one of their own would be waiting to pick them up. If only they had managed to escape!”

One prisoner did have an answer. It was Lieutenant Commander Heyda. He had rigged up a chair that was suspended from chords that were attached to wheels that ran along the hydro line. In the dark of the night, he went up the pole and pulled himself along the wire and over the barbed wire fence and escaped. He made it to the coast but was captured. The Germans didn’t know it, but the Allies had cracked their secret code. Heyda was supposed to give signals with a flashlight, but when that didn’t happen the captain of the u-boat, which had surfaced awaiting the signals, became suspicious. That night the Northern Lights came out and the captain knew his submarine would be seen. He dived and fled the scene.

Since the war, information has come out that the German u-boats were quite active along the Canadian coast. German records record u-boat activity as far down the St. Lawrence as Rimouski (only 300 km from Quebec City). In July 2004 the first ever confirmed German u-boat wreck in Canadian waters was discovered 200 kilometers south of Shelburne Nova Scotia. In the late 1970’s a German weather station was rediscovered. It had been set up in Labrador in 1943 and is known as “Weather Station Kurt”. It is considered the only armed German military operation on land in North America during the Second World War. It is now on display at the War Museum in Ottawa.

Searchers were using sonar to search for the bodies of three drowning victims in the Churchill River when they came across the image that resembles a German u-boat. It is especially notable because the location is 200 kilometers inland from the coast. Apparently rumors had been heard for years that there was a u-boat on the bottom of the Churchill River and there was even a fictional book written about it! I wonder what they knew that, until recently, no one else did?

The book pictured in the image is "Camp 30 'Ehrenwort' A German Prisoner-of-War Camp in Bowmanville 1941-1945" by Daniel Hoffman.  Copies are still available at the Museum's gift shops.  It is only $19.99.