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FALLEN WORKERS: Exploding rock rains down on workers

 John Burtniak, special to Postmedia Network

Lorne Edmund Whitwell (1895-1928) (Supplied photo)

Lorne Edmund Whitwell (1895-1928) (Supplied photo)

Sometimes, tragedy strikes close to home. Such was the sad fate of Lorne Whitwell, 32, of Allanburg, who was killed on Feb. 4, 1928.

He died in an explosion at a Welland Canal work site in Section 4B in Allanburg, about 90 metres north of the main road, Highway 20.

A fellow worker, Carlo Bianco, also lost his life in the same incident. Three others, Albert Foster, Louis Johnson and Edward Griffiths (or Griffin), suffered severe injuries, while several others survived minor injuries.

Lorne Edmund Whitwell was born in Stoney Creek on May 23, 1895, to William James and Catharine Caroline (Dunham) Whitwell. In 1923 he married Erma Stewart, born in Stamford Township.

Whitwell had worked as a drill helper for J.P. Porter & Sons, contractor on Section 4B, since Oct. 17, 1927. It was the drillers’ job to drill the holes that the “powder-monkey” crew would fill with dynamite in order to break up rock layers.

Suddenly, at about 2:30 p.m., a tremendous explosion shattered the rock and hurled men and machines, rock and soil, into the air, burying Whitwell and Bianco under the falling debris. The gang had been working at the site for two weeks, drilling nearly 110 holes and placing almost three tonnes of dynamite. Only seven holes remained to be drilled and loaded. A ton and a half of dynamite, placed 4.2 metres deep into the rock, had exploded. (The remaining half of the charge was set off a few days later in a controlled blast.)

The St. Catharines Standard of Feb. 6, reported: “The explosion came with dramatic suddenness. There was no warning. A loud report, as from a mighty cannon and the ground on which the men were standing broke up like matchwood — and huge boulders went flying skyward. In 15 seconds it was all over. What was once a flat surface on the earth is now a pile of boulders and stone, piled 15 feet high in some places.”

Workmen immediately rushed to the scene, and realizing that two workers were missing, feverishly commenced digging with pick and shovel. The first of the drillers recovered was Bianco, followed a few minutes later by the lifeless body of Whitwell. The Welland Ship Canal project had claimed two more lives.

A coroner’s inquest was held in the township hall five days after the accident (Feb. 9). Among the many witnesses called were the Porter company’s superintendent, the powder foreman and the chief electrician — all men possessing years of experience in drilling and blasting operations — along with fellow workers from the site, including Whitwell’s brother, Frank.

No satisfactory explanation could be arrived at as to what caused the premature ignition of the dynamite. After 45 minutes of deliberation the jury returned the verdict: “That death was caused by a premature explosion, cause of explosion unknown. We would recommend that all power cables or live wires be suspended seven feet above the surface of the ground.”

Whitwell’s funeral was held on Tuesday, Feb. 7, from the family’s Allanburg home, with Rev. T.H. Ibbott of Welland presiding. It was largely attended with many floral tributes in evidence. Interment was in an unmarked grave in the Stamford Presbyterian Church cemetery.

Besides his wife and infant son, Whitwell was survived by his parents, a sister and three brothers, all of Allanburg. He was predeceased by a son, Percy Franklin, who had died of bronchopneumonia in January 1927 at the age of four months. Erma remarried, to Charles Dunham, nine months after the death of her husband.

— This article is part of a series remembering the men whose lives were lost in the construction of the Welland Ship Canal. The Welland Canal Fallen Workers Memorial Task Force is a volunteer group established to design, finance and build a memorial to recognize workers who were killed during construction of the Welland Ship Canal. For more information about the memorial, or to contribute to the project, visit www.stcatharines.ca/CanalWorkersMemorial.

Profile No. 86

Lorne Edmund Whitwell, 32

Born: March 23, 1895 (Stoney Creek)

Died: Feb. 4, 1928 (Section 4B, Allanburg)

Cause of death: explosion; brain concussion

Occupation: drill runner helper, J.P. Porter & Sons, Ltd. 



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