Town of Essex officials and the Essex Heritage Committee paid tribute to their explosive history by hosting Blasts from Our Past, a photograph exhibit and heritage plaque dedication ceremony at the Essex Railway Station on Sunday, February 12, 2017.
The beautifully restored historic Essex Railway Station, built in 1887 is definitely something to see in Windsor Essex County. Essex Railway Station was fully restored in 1994 and officially designated a heritage site under the Ontario Heritage Act in 1977. In addition to establishing the Town of Essex as a central shipping hub in Windsor Essex the station has a colourful history including suffering two massive explosions.
A boxcar filled with dynamite exploded violently killing two in 1907 and a giant natural gas explosion flattened an entire block near the Essex Railroad Station in 1980.
Locals often think about the two explosions recalling the level of devastation inflicted on the downtown core of Essex Centre and the resiliency of residents as they worked towards recovery.
In 1907 on a hot August day a boxcar full of dynamite exploded in The Town of Essex instantly killing two railway workers. The blast created an enormous crater twenty feet wide and twelve feet deep in the ground next to Essex Railway Station and destroyed it’s second floor. The town’s core was flattened and windows as far away as Windsor and Detroit rattled.
Seventy-three years later on Valentine’s Day morning 1980, feet away from the same location, a tremendous natural gas explosion destroyed an entire block of the Town of Essex Centre. The tragedy started early in the morning when a car drove into a natural gas meter on the wall of a local hardware store. Nearly every commercial building had shattered windows, buckled walls and other forms of property damage. Broken glass and debris filled the streets. The force of the blast rattled residents in their homes as they slept, throwing some of them from their beds. Luckily everyone survived and only one person was seriously injured.
Both of the horrific explosions were showcased in over forty photographs, a video presentation and old newspaper stories on display during the Blasts From Our Past exhibit. The event opened with an outdoor dedication of a bronze heritage plaque.
“We specifically selected the weekend before February 14th for this event because we know that the 1980 explosion is top of mind at this time of year,” says Doug Sweet, Director of Community Services. “Social media users have responded enthusiastically when we’ve posted photographs online in the past. This event is an opportunity for people to see those photographs in a larger format and in a setting that is historically significant.”
Fred Groves a young journalist just starting his career with the Essex Free Press rushed to cover the 1980 explosion. Groves spoke with visitors at the Blasts From The Past exhibit as they looked at the powerful photos on display. Groves authored a book called Rising From the Rubble which was on display at the exhibit. Rising from the Rubble is a historic and personal look back on the 1980 Essex explosion. A portion of sales from the book go towards the Essex Firefighters’ Association.
The Essex Railway Station is the third historic site in the Town of Essex to be recognized through the Municipal Heritage Committee’s new Heritage Plaque Program.
The Tofflemire-Snider Cemetery on County Road 50 and Essex District High School were both recognized in late 2016. The Heritage Plaque Program is intended to broaden public knowledge surrounding the historical and cultural resources within the municipality. Under the program, bronze plaques are used to recognize a public or private site of historical significance that has been designated by by-law under the Ontario Heritage Act. Interpretive plaques, like the one unveiled at Essex District High School during Homecoming Weekend, are used to recognize sites that have historical, cultural and/or social significance to the community but are not designated under the Ontario Heritage Act.
The photographs from the Blasts From Our Past exhibit will be hung at various locations throughout the Town of Essex in the near future. For those looking for fun things to do in Windsor Essex, touring the historic Essex Railway Station is worth considering. The station contains a variety of railway memorabilia and artifacts of historical interest. Tour booklets are available for self guided tours and group tours can be arranged with advance notice. A small gift shop featuring various items from local artists and craftsmen are available for purchase at the train station. Visitors can then take the short walk along Talbot Trail to explore Essex Town Centre and view the Essex Railway Station explosion photographs throughout town. Next to the Essex Railway Station and just before the town centre visitors can also explore the WWII Essex Memorial Spitfire and Honour Wall.