German Sabotage in WW I: Vanceboro railway bridge bombing

Vanceboro-BridgeBombing

L. railway bridge at time, R. Werner Horn and Deputy Ross (on right)

At 1:10 am on the morning of February 2, 1915 a bomb exploded on the Vanceboro railway bridge between the United States and Canada. It shattered most of the windows in structures in the Town of Vanceboro, Maine and St. Croix, New Brunswick.

Where is Vanceboro you may ask and what was its importance? The Town of Vanceboro is located at the headwaters of the St. Croix River which forms the boundary between the State of Maine, USA and the Province of New Brunswick, Canada. It is 111 miles northeast of Bangor, Maine. Originally a logging camp and trading post established in 1871, Vanceboro incorporated as a town on March 4, 1874. Today it’s at the eastern end of Maine Route 6 and has 24 hour customs stations (Canadian and American) to manage the international border crossing. In the late 1800s and early 1900s the town was quite prosperous with railway, lumbering, hunting and fishing being prime employers. There were also industries, a tannery, a wooden ware company. The railway was key as it provided the link to the outside world. The population of 147 as of the 2000 census is small compared to those glory days.

The railway bridge crosses the St. Croix River, the boundary between Canada and the United States. This was an iron railway bridge measuring about 100 feet in length. The opening ceremony in 1871 of the railway line and bridge between Canada and the United States was attended by Governer-General of Canada Lord Lisgar and the President of the United States Ulysses S. Grant.

At the time the Canadian Pacific Railway operated the main link between Saint John, New Brunswick (an ice free port) on the Atlantic Ocean and Montreal and Quebec City. This link was the shortest route connecting the Atlantic port of Saint John to Montreal or Quebec City on the St. Lawrence River. During the winter months it was especially important as the St. Lawrence was usually frozen and didn’t allow shipping access to Montreal or Quebec City.

The United States was neutral during the First World War from 1914 until they entered the war in late 1917. Under the Neutrality Act it was illegal for the railroad to carry war materials or troops through the United States and across this bridge. However, the Maine Central Railroad operator of the line allowed Canadian Pacific to do this. The German embassy in Washington, DC became aware of this practice and protested loudly to no avail. For this reason they wanted the bridge destroyed to cut the link.

When war broke out in 1914 the Germans had staffed the embassy with several spies. The goal was to disrupt port shipments from the US to Britain and its allies. The military attaché at the embassy was Captain Franz von Papen who was in effect the chief spymaster. He directed propaganda and acts of sabotage on American soil during the war.

Werner Horn, a German reserve lieutenant, was not in Germany when war broke out in 1914. He managed a coffee plantation in Moka, Guatemala. He tried twice to return to Germany but both times could get no further than New York City. The British blockade of North Sea ports prevented sailings to Germany. While Horn was in New York City Captain von Papen recruited him to destroy the Vanceboro bridge and thereby stop the trains. He paid Horn $700 US to carry out the attack and provided the explosives.

Horn arrived in Vanceboro December 31, 1914 and stayed at the Exchange Hotel. He was seen hiding the suitcase of explosives in a wood pile outdoors and also scouting out the bridge. At least three Vanceboro residents reported Horn’s suspicious behaviour to the American immigration inspector. He then interviewed Horn at the hotel.  Horn assured him he was a Danish farmer looking to buy land in the area. Horn spent the next few days keeping a low profile and watching the rail line to try to determine the schedule of trains.

February 1, 1915 Horn checked out of the hotel saying he had a train to catch that evening. He went to the bridge sometime after midnight. Horn positioned the suitcase full of explosives on the Canadian side of the bridge. Interrupted by an approaching train he had to reposition the suitcase but again was interrupted. Finally after he was sure the trains had passed he positioned the explosives on a girder. Horn shortened the fuse from 50 minutes to about 3 minutes. Lighting the fuse with a cigar he worked his way back to the hotel through gale force winds and -30 F temperatures. At 1:10 am on the morning of February 2, 1915 the bomb exploded shattering windows in Vanceboro and St. Croix. This woke all the residents who were also now exposed to the frigid winter air.

Horn’s hands were frostbitten. The hotel owner helped him and allowed him to check back in for the night. After the explosion the owner became suspicious and informed the CPR. They closed the bridge and rerouted trains. Inspection was done the next morning. Some beams on the bridge were twisted or bent but otherwise damage was minor. The bridge was out of service for only a few days.

Vanceboro Deputy Sheriff George Ross and two Canadian police officers from McAdam, who crossed the border to help, detained Horn at the hotel.  Horn had changed into is German army uniform to avoid being arrested as a spy. He then surrendered to American authorities. The explosion took place on the Canadian side of the bridge so the Americans could only charge him with mischief at first for breaking windows in Vanceboro.

He was moved to jail in Machias, Maine. Canadian authorities began extradition proceedings. At Machias he was interrogated and signed a confession with a statement-of-facts detailing his act of sabotage.

A federal grand jury in Boston indicted him on March 2, 1915 for transporting explosives on a common carrier (passenger train). This was the most serious charge the US could try him on since the explosion was on the Canadian side of the border. Horn received a sentence of 18 months at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary in Georgia.

After he served his sentence he was extradited to Canada in October 1919. Canada tried him for the sabotage and bombing in Court of Queen’s Bench of New Brunswick at Fredericton. Horn was found guilty and sentenced to 10 years at Dorchester Penitentiary in New Brunswick. Canadian prison authorities assessed Horn to be insane in July 1921. He was then released and deported to Germany.

Author’s note:
I’ve visited Vanceboro on a couple of occasions. My grandfather operated a taxidermy shop there during the 1920s and 30s in the old tannery. Vanceboro is a quaint little town with a fascinating history and great location. The railroad is not the mainline anymore and it’s not on the main highway. Vanceboro’s website claims it’s “not quite the end of the earth, but occasionally the end can be seen from town.”

Vanceboro-Me-AerialView

Vanceboro today looking north. Railroad bridge is in foreground. Original bridge replaced with new one many years ago. Border crossing is where road crosses river at top. USA on left of river and Canada to the right.

Further reading
Wikipedia, Vanceboro Railway Bombing

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