German Sabotage in WW I: Vanceboro railway bridge bombing

January 3, 2018

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 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

Blow the stink off.

July 14, 2013

Grandfather Davis possible originator of the saying.

When I was a kid my Dad would always be telling us to, “Go outside and blow the stink off”.

Every family has it sayings I guess. That was one of my father’s favorites. I tried for years to find out what the hell it meant, and second where in God’s name he ever came up with it.

He’d always say it to us kids. I think he’d use it whenever he got tired of us being in the house. It didn’t matter that there was a monsoon rain or the blizzard of the century happening outside, Dad’d direct that at us and then he’d get up and walk away. He never said it to our Mom, or anyone else only us kids.

As kids we actually got the part about going outside, but the “blow the stink off” part? Well I knew I didn’t smell because I showered that morning. I also knew I hadn’t farted, at least most of the time that wasn’t my transgression. Hell if it was the farts he did more of that than we did. Why didn’t he go outside and blow the stink off?

Now after many years I find myself using on my kids. I still don’t know what it means. I did find out where he picked it up. Turns out his father used it on him and his four brothers. Guess what? None of them ever knew exactly what it meant either.

The best interpretation I’ve ever have been able to come up with is this. Go outside meant to leave the house and go play outside where you wouldn’t be bothering him.

My interpretation of the “blow the stink off” is to get some fresh air. It’s a hell of a weird way to say it, but that’s the only way I can put a meaning to that phrase.

Where it came from originally I’m afraid is lost in the mists of time and family roots.



March 13, 2008

Several bloggers have done this lately. I thought it would be an interesting way to look back in time, so here is my version.

1. Who was your first date?
A girl name Terry who was in my class. I remember it took me forever to work up the nerve to ask her to a dance. I think I was around 15 at the time.

2. Do you still talk to your first love?
No. My first puppy love was at age 14 and her name was Crystal. We met while vacationing at a resort. Apparently she married and had several children. I never saw her again after that summer, except we did write letters back and forth for a while.

3. What was your first alcoholic drink?
Vodka and orange juice. A couple of my buddies and I tied one on when we were about 16. Certainly something I am not proud of, but I was so sick that it’s something I haven’t forgotten.

4. What was your first job?
My first part-time job was working at the local IGA grocery store. I worked there through all of high school. Started when I was 15. The first full-time job was in June 1969. My employer was Babcock & Wilcock. I was a timekeeper/first aid man on various construction sites. There was lots of shift work. I remember the starting wage was $3.00/hr and after three years I got up to $5.00/hr.

5. What was your first car?
First car I owned was a 1969 MGB sportscar. It was a snazy convertible. I had lots of fun for a couple of years, until I had an accident and couldn’t afford the insurance, so I traded to a Toyota Corolla. Before cars I did have a couple of motorcycles, a Yamaha 100cc Twin and a Yamaha 350. Got my first one when I turned 16 and got my licence.

6. Who is the first person you thought of this morning?
My beautiful wife Cindy. I get up early, around quarter to five, and it is very difficult to leave the warmth of the bed.

7. Who was the first teacher who influenced you?
I don’t remember at all. The one teacher that really sticks in my mind is Gerald Kelsey who was my grade 8 teacher and also principle of the elementary school. I was severely challenged by math. He took the time to work with me after school several times a week. If it weren’t for his patience and perseverance I would likely still be in that grade.

8. Where did you go on your first ride on an airplane?
In 1957 I went for a helicopter ride in the small town I lived in at the time, Iroquois, Ontario. It was part of their Christmas celebrations. Santa had arrived via the chopper and Dad arranged for us to have a ride.

9. Who was your first best friend, and are you still friends with him/her? When, high school? Elementary school?
I had two very best male friends all the way through high school. Unfortunately I lost touch with them over the years. Recently I found out one is a drunk and the other has passed on. Very sad all in all.

10. What was your first sport played?
I played little league baseball when I was around 10 or 11. I was a pitcher.

11. What was the first movie you saw?
Bambi when it first came to the screen. My folks took us to see it in Ottawa. It would have been in the 1950s, but I’m not sure of the year. 

12. What was the first concert you ever went to?
The Rolling Stones in 1964 in London, Ontario. They had just released “Satisfaction”. I remember how conservative they were at the time dressed in suits and not dancing around the stage like they do now. I also remember girls fainting and pulling off their clothes in a frenzy.

13. What was the first foreign country you went to?
The United States because I lived across the St. Lawrence River from it.

14. What was your first run-in with the law?
The police rousted a bunch of us who were at a bush party. Nothing serious though, they just told us all to go home.

15. When was your first detention?
It is hard to remember since I got so many in high school, but I was likely about 14.

16. What was the first state/province you lived in?
New Brunswick because I was born there. We left in 1955, when I was six, to live in Ontario. I left in 1977 to move to Alberta where I still reside.

17. Who was the first person to break your heart?
A girlfriend I had in high school. She was a minister’s daughter, but you would never have known it. She was a wild one let me tell you. She ended up marrying one of my best friends.

18. What was the first world event that influenced you or that you remember the most?
The Kennedy Assassination – the killing of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas on November 22, 1963 still fascinates me. I was only 14 years old at the time, but from that point forward my interest in world events and history knew no bounds. For me it was a life changing event.

If you enjoyed this why not try this exercise yourself. I know I had a few chuckles jotting these memories down.

The Fallen: Remembrance Day is Personal

November 7, 2007

poppy_3001.jpgWith November 11th, Remembrance Day in Canada, and Veterans Day in the U.S. approaching, I reflect on how war has affected me. Although I was born after World War II and have not myself served in the military, I have been personally impacted.

My father and two of his brothers served during World War II in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). One of them, his youngest brother Ken, was killed in the service of his country. My mother also served in the RCAF.

Growing up my Dad always told us stories of his brother Ken. The stories were fascinating to me as a young boy. Ken was killed in a flying accident while training to be a pilot. We were shown pictures of him. He was a handsome young man who stood 6’6″ tall and who was a very talented artist. Dad had some of Ken’s drawings that were done while in the air force. In high school he was the editor of the school newspaper and apparently very popular. After his death the new school cafeteria was named after him.

My uncle Ken was only 20 years of age when he was solemnly buried in the cemetery near his home in New Brunswick in 1944. My grandparents never fully got over the devastating loss of their “baby boy”.

Another way I was impacted was the meeting of my father and mother. They were both in the air force serving in Ottawa when they met at a party New Years Eve 1943. Both had other dates for the evening, but Dad was smitten. He pursued her and eventually they were married in September 1944. The rules at the time forbade officers (my Dad was a Flight-Lieutenant) from fraternizing with enlisted personnel, so Mom had to resign from the RCAF. After she resigned she ended up doing the same job for them, but as a civilian. Talk about ridiculous. So it is quite likely that without the war my parents would never have met. She was from Toronto, Ontario and he was from Fredericton, New Brunswick.

After the marriage Dad shipped out to a posting in London, England for the next two years. When he returned they were able to start a family and I became part of the post-war “baby boom” generation. Mom and Dad remained married until he died in July 2004. They would have celebrated 60 years of marriage in September 2004.

The point is that war affects not only the participants, but it has a trickle-down effect for generations to come.

This time of year I always wonder what the uncle I never knew would have been like and what he would have accomplished in his life had he lived. It is odd, but there is an empty spot in my heart for not having known him. I also proudly remember the service that my Mom and Dad and countless others gave and continue to give to Canada to make things better. Below is my personal favorite Remembrance Day tribute to those who paid the ultimate price in the service of their country. Whenever I read this it never fails to bring tears to my eyes. It should be remembered that when you see the now aged veterans marching on November 11th, that many years ago they gave their youth for us. The vast majority of the war dead were very young indeed, in their teens or early twenties. That is why this verse is so poignant.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
(from “For The Fallen” by Laurence Binyon, 1914)

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