Railway Station Explosion

Tales from the South Shore- Shag Harbour’s Great Tragedy. Two Boys Killed Outright, Three More Likely to Die, and Two More Badly Burned


Thursday July 1. 1909, at Shag Harbour Railway Station, was the advent of one of the greatest tragedies that this part of the Province ever witnessed. Two boys were instantly killed by the explosion of a cask containing a small quantity of electric-carbon paint, such as used in the painting of the iron bridges along the railroad, and three others, probably fatally burned.

            Last October men were employed in painting the iron bridges along the Halifax, and South Western Railway, and at the Railway Bridge at Shag Harbour, a cask containing the paint was about emptied and was left at Shag Harbour Railway Station, standing on the platform. It remained there all winter and spring until the day of the terrible accident.

            Thursday, being Dominion Day, the lads had gathered together, were making the most of their holiday. The train was nearly due, and they thought that they would go to the station and see her come in. One of the lads had a piece of wax candle that he had picked up during the day and which he still had in his possession. He procured a few matches from the station agent for the purpose of lighting it, when another lad took the match which was burning, after the candle was lit, and attempted to drop it into the cask, as the spigot hole was open.

            The lads were standing on the platform around the cask watching the lad drop the match into the cask, not thinking that there was any danger in doing so. The lad stood looking into the cask to see what the effects would be. But poor little fellow, he never knew, for in an instant, there was deafening explosion and roar, which was heard for miles, and at the same time, the cask shot into the air, striking the lad in the face, severing his head form his body, and lifting his body out on to the platform, and his head, thirty feet away our on to the railroad track.

            Immediately after the explosion, the end of the station was in flames, carried by the paint catching fire, which was composed of a very flammable substance, coal tar being a large part of its composition.

            The cask, striking the end of station with such force, ripped apart clapboards, and broke through the boarding-in, and shooting out from the station, landing fifty feet away, out on to the station ground half burying itself in the mud. There were two lads who were not in the first group, but they ran to get to the station before the train.

            At the first shock of the explosion, the mail carrier, and the station agent, ran out to see what had happened. In turning the corner of the station, a terrible sight met their view. The end of the platform, and the station in flames, and the bodies of the two boys lying in them. The mail carrier managed to pull one out before it burned too badly, but he was unable to rescue the other, as the fire and smoke was too much for him. He and the agent turned their attention to the other lads who were running around with their clothing afire. The agent who was a young lady, Miss Ryder, from Lower Argyle, acted with great courage, and presence of mind. She caught one of the lads, who was on fire and wrapping him in her apron, quickly smothered the flames, and in danger of burning herself. The mail carrier caught some of the others and extinguished the fire on them, burning his hand badly in doing so. The train was about due at the time, and as she came in sight the agent signalled her to stop, which she quickly did at her arrival at the station. A hose was quickly turned on the fire which was quickly under control, and finally put out. A ghostly spectacle presented itself to the passengers on the train, and to the people of the village, who had quickly gathered at the scene at the alarm of fire. On the cage of the platform, lay the body of one poor little lad, with his head gone, and another lay at the end of the station where the fire was the hottest, burnt to a crisp, every bit of clothing burnt from his body. Poor little lads, only ten minutes before, they were full of life, and fun, and in so short a time, to be swept out of life in so terrible a manner.

            The injured lads were removed to their homes, as quickly as possible, and medical assistance summoned, and the lads made as comfortable as possible. An inquest was held, and the bodies were removed to their homes. They were buried on Sunday morning, with a large congregation in attendance, the Rev. G.H. Wilson conducting the service. Much Sympathy is felt for the sorrowing families and a great shadow resting over the village.

            The two lads killed. Were Burnley, son of Captain and Mrs. Delmar Kendrick, burnt in the fire, and Frank Crosby, adopted son of Mr. and Mrs. Howard Kenney, his head taken off. The lads who were burned, were Arnold, son of Mr. and Mrs. Wm. Garron, who died from the effects of his burns. Wilfred son of Mr. and Mrs. Jared Smith, who was severely burned, also, William, son of Mr. and Mrs. Isaac Hopkins, Harold, son of Capt. and Mrs. Thomas D. Crowell, and lesser burned, and Sidney, son of Captain and Mrs. Adelbert Nickerson.

Story of Shag Harbour United Baptist Church


United Baptist Church


In 1971, the doors of the United Baptist Church, standing on Chapel Hill in Shag Harbour, were closed and locked, and for the remainder of the decade the building stood quiet and empty. The only thing to enter the building was an occasional stone thrown through one of the side windows, briefly stirring echoes of the building’s past before settling among flakes of peeling paint and drifts of dust.

To the more perceptive (or perhaps more imaginative) observer, the stones’ intrusions to the quiet sobriety of the church recalled those echoes of more active days long past and the events that marked not only the history of a building, but of a community as well. Echoes of the church’s first cornerstones being laid in 1856 and the zeal of those men who constructed the building for a little over £350 drift within the structure. Or perhaps one can hear the discussions among the three trustees appointed to in 1857 to seek out a minister for the church. Or the debates of 1865 that surrounded a vote that allowed the Baptists’ use of the building for a quarter of the year, the Methodists’ use of the building for a quarter of the year, but denied use of the building for a sixth of the year by the Advents’.

One of the loudest echoes would belong to the harried and intense conflict between those Baptists and Methodists of the mid 1870’s who expressed open intolerance to the others manner of Christian worship. The conflict resulted in the closing of the church for two years. The church was not opened again until the new Methodist church was constructed in lower Shag Harbour. Echoes of long ago sermons by former ministers ring throughout the church, with perhaps those by the Rev. Lew Wallace remaining louder than most as he spoke to capacity congregations with an emotional intensity further charged by his wife’s enthusiastic renditions of hymns, “If Your Heart Keeps Right” and “Brighter the Corner Where You Are”.

Echoes drift by of the ghostly boasts made by the congregations of 1916 praising the fortitude of those 33 “believers” who braved the winter weather and ice flows at Shag Harbour’s share to become baptised. There are later echoes of the sermons of Rev. H. H. Phinney, “the singing pastor”, and the storm of 1929 that tore the church’s steeple from its moorings on the roof. The round window that once adorned the steeple now hangs on the far wall in the museum.

Muffled prayers for Shag Harbour soldiers in the World Wars echo throughout the building, which is now a museum. The building was presented to the Chapel Hill Historical Society to preserve the historic building as a museum. The building was given to the Society by the United Baptist Church and with aid of government grants, the Society was able to restore the building, construct an observation tower in the old belfry, and establish a museum of Shag Harbour and Canadian Heritage.

However, there is more to the history of Chapel Hill than that of the United Baptist Church. On the site of the museum stood the first trading post in Western Nova Scotia, a building called “Vieux Logis” (Old House), which is marked on Champlain’s map of 1612. Fishermen from New England fishing around Cape Sable Island used the Old House as a landmark for taking bearings. One particular area of the fishing grounds was called the Old House ground and today is known as the Housing Ground. The Old House was once the home of Abram d’Entremont in 1686. A little less than one hundred years later, the first English settlement was established near the site. The land was divided into lots and from Leire Nickerson in 1856, the Chapel Hill site was purchased for the construction of “The Christian Church”, later the United Baptist Church.

Today the Chapel Hill Museum holds many articles that reflect the people and their lifestyle in a time long since past. In the museum hang portraits of the British Royalty from Queen Victoria to the current Queen Elizabeth II. There are tools and instruments commonplace in a time gone by, as well as furnishings, paintings, and records from the community’s past.

One of the famed wreckwood chairs fashioned from the wood of shipwrecks ranging from the sinking of the luxury liner “Titanic” (1912) to the wreck of the “North Star” (1919) is on display at the museum. The designer and builder of the chair, Gilbert Nickerson, was known as the “Old Chairmaker” to most of the South Shore and was an avid and accomplished area historian. Many of his “Tales from the South Shore” are on display.

Photographs and articles from the life of the late Evelyn Richardson are also included in the museum. Mrs. Richardson, winner of the Governor General’s Award in 1945 for her book “We Keep a Light” ably and distinctively preserved in her books the Shag Harbour and outlying island community as it existed in the early 20th century.

In the museum there are displayed articles from the Sons of Temperance League, including a portrait of E.R. Nickerson who gained distinction among other Shag Harbour citizens for his involvement in both the Sons of Temperance over North America and in the legislation process of the Provincial Government.

Also, at the Chapel Hill Museum, there is an observation tower. From the tower one can see much of Cape Sable Island and the lighthouse on Bon Portage Island which Evelyn and Morrill Richardson  tended from 1930-1965. Their experience as light keepers is the theme of her book “We Keep a Light”. Seal Island can be seen through the western window in the tower and at night five lighthouses are visible: Seal Island Light, Bon Portage Light, Emerald Isle Light, West Head Light, and the Cape Sable Light.

The Chapel Hill Museum is open from June 15 to September 15 and is attended by members of the Shag Harbour Historical Society. There is no admission fee to the museum, but donations are welcome.

Many additions and changes to our archives have been made since our opening in 1981. In 1985, we had our 200th birthday, and due to our volunteers work, we erected a monument to “they that go down in ships”. Work on the building is ongoing to date thanks to the continued effort of our Society volunteers and tremendous support from the community.

Come and visit and experience a bit of Nova Scotia’s past, and at the same time, celebrate the natural beauties of her present and, hopefully, future. Visit the Chapel Hill Museum and observation tower in Shag Harbour, Nova Scotia.

Methodist Church

Recalls “Ghost on Bon Portage Island”

Bon Portage Light, made famous by Evelyn Richardson’s Governor General Award winning novel “We Keep a Light”, once had the reputation of being haunted. But due to the efforts of the fact finding lightkeeper, the ghost was exposed as a fraud.

The story of “The Haunted Lighthouse” was recalled by Mrs. Maurice Nickerson of Rockville, Yarmouth Co., making her first visit to the lighthouse since she and her husband tended the light back in the early years of World War I.

In taking over from the returning lightkeeper, the Nickersons were told that the place was haunted. There were knockings in the walls of the building at night, while strange moaning noises as if a person was suffering great agony came from the beach.

Unlike his predecessors, Maurice Nickerson, who also pursed the calling of the fisherman, was not in the least superstitious, neither was he a timid soul. There must be some explanation for the ghosts on Bon Portage Island and he was determined to find out what this was.

First, according to Mrs. Nickerson, the source of all the knockings within the walls of the building were found to be caused by the heavy weights used to operate the light in those days. The weights went right down through the building from the light, 50ft above sea level – to the basement of the structure and often in ascending or descending, the weights would knock against the walls.

But that awful moaning noise which used to sometimes keep them awake at night was the real puzzler. Night after night, Mr. Nickerson visited the beach, trying to find out the source of the noises.

“It did sound like some person suffering great agony,” Mrs. Nickerson recalled during her recent visit to the island.

Then one wild and stormy night, when the moaning sounds were at the highest pitch the Nickerson family had ever heard, Maurice donned his rubber boots and oil skins and ventured out into the night.

Proceeding slowly down the beach, struggling against the heavy winds and blinding rainstorm, he edged closer to the awful sounding noises. They were enough to make a strong man be led to wits end indeed. But the lightkeeper was determined to solve the mystery at all costs.

Finally, after what seemed to be endless hours of searching and not knowing what he was going to come up against at any given moment, Nickerson finally stumbled on the source of the noises, it was the wind blowing through the wreckage of an old steamer the “Express” wrecked on Bon Portage in 1898.

Today the source of the haunted howling noises has disappeared, but still remaining on the beach are two old steamship boilers from the same wreck. And when the winds are in the right direction, the water will still run up through the boilers and sprout out through the top into the air.

Coming back to scenes where she helped tend the light from 1914-1917, Mrs. Nickerson says it was all too much of a lonely island to suit her tastes. Many days when her husband was absent fishing, she was on the island all alone with only a dog for companionship.

“It’s alright for those who can adopt themselves for a life of isolation,” she declared, adding that she never regretted for one moment the day her husband decided to quit his lighthouse job and reside on the mainland. She was very happy about the success of the Richardson’s, congratulate Mrs. Richardson, author of “We Keep a Light”, on her success, but added she would never be envious of the lighters life on the island.