News

FALLEN WORKERS: War hero’s life taken on the canal

Sarah King Head, special to Postmedia News

Alexander Simpson Wilson (1898-1928), shown in The Toronto Daily Star, Aug. 4, 1928. (Supplied photo)

Alexander Simpson Wilson (1898-1928), shown in The Toronto Daily Star, Aug. 4, 1928. (Supplied photo)

Humanly speaking, there is not even the comforting thought that they were serving their country in defensive war, though the Welland Ship Canal may well be termed one of the great victories of peace, and those who toil in its construction are no less patriots than those who take up arms and proceed to battle in time of war.

The Thorold Post and other news media were swift to extend the analogy of the glorious dead from the war to the 10 workers who died as a result of the Lock 6 gate collapse on Aug. 1, 1928.

It has been observed that embracing military “deathways,” metaphors offered the families of the deceased — as well as communities — the chance to assert their dignity in the face of perceived corporate or industrial indifference.

For men such as Alex Wilson, such metaphors acquired greater currency when coupled with laudable war records. Thus, as with the McArthurs several days earlier, full military ceremony was rolled out at the Scottish riveter’s funeral: members of the sea cadets served as pall bearers, a guard of honour was formed, and Last Post was sounded before Wilson’s casket was lowered into the ground in the Veterans Section of Victoria Lawn Cemetery in St. Catharines.

According to his brother, Christopher, the young Alex had “a remarkable war record.” As a signaller aboard the submarine chaser H.M.S. Golden Strand he had not only witnessed the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 but had also helped escort the Lapland across the Atlantic Ocean with members of Canadian Expeditionary Force’s 98th Battalion Lincoln & Welland Regiment in 1916.

But, it was Wilson’s heroic role in capturing the lieutenant of a German submarine for which “he received very high mention.”

Three years after he was demobilized in 1918, Wilson and his family travelled across the Atlantic aboard the Vedic to start a new life in Canada — but this time Alex was below decks. They were destined to join his sister-in-law’s family on a farm near Invermay in central Saskatchewan.

The family relocated to Niagara in 1927, and Wilson was able to secure work on the canal with his brother. On the day of the accident, the two had been working together in a crew of 20 riveting the steel plates to the massive gate. Christopher was on the floor of the lock as foreman in charge while Alex was part of the riveting gang.

The younger Wilson’s last words had been: “Oh my God! The gate’s falling!” Even though Christopher was fortunate enough to avoid the same fate by being pushed aside at the last second, it wasn’t far enough away to avoid injury from the rivets, which like shrapnel, were reported to have flown in all directions. He ended up a patient at General Hospital in the aftermath of the accident, and for the rest of his life was troubled by violent outbursts that were the result of brain injuries inflicted by the flying chunks of metal.

Alex Wilson and the French-Canadian Léon Dion suffered for two agonizing days before dying, bringing the total dead to 10 from that Wednesday morning accident. Remarkably enough, many of those workers who had been injured returned to work on the canal in due course — but Christopher was not among them.

Alex Wilson’s widow, Williamina, was left with five children (Aijuna ‘Ina,’ Williamina ‘Mina’ or ‘Minnie,’ Christina, Alexander and James). After initially moving house to be nearer to her in-laws in St Catharines, in August 1930, only two years after the death of her husband she returned to Scotland with the five children. While it appeared that they had intended to permanently relocate in Scotland (she had sold her St. Catharines home and its contents), before too long she and the children had returned to Canada to live.

— 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 will unveil a memorial to the workers in the fall. To learn more or to make a donation visit www.stcatharines.ca/donate.

Profile No. 102

Alexander Simpson Wilson, 34

Born: Feb. 7, 1894 (Grangemouth, Sterlingshire, Scotland)

Died: Aug. 3, 1928 (St. Catharines, from an accident that occurred Aug. 1 in Section 3, Lock 6, Thorold)

Cause of death: crushed by lock gate

Occupation: riveter in a riveting crew, Steel Gates Co. Ltd.

Burial: Victoria Lawn Cemetery, St. Catharines (New Section A, Division 1, Row 3W, Grave 9) 



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