German Sabotage in WW I: Vanceboro railway bridge bombing

January 3, 2018
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


Prohibition Lawman – Book Launch

August 26, 2015

ProhibitionLawman-BookCover0001The evening of September 21, 1922 was a fateful one for infamous bootlegger Emperor Pic of the Crowsnest Pass in southern Alberata.

In the aftermath of an attempted illegal liquor run and an ensuing Alberta Provincial Police pursuit Picariello and associate Florence Lassandro gun down an unarmed Alberta Provincial Police officer outside his office and home in downtown Coleman. After their arrest and a sensational trial the two are hanged the following year.

Forgotten in the splash of media coverage are the victims, Steve Lawson, and his wife and five young children who witnessed his cold-blooded murder.

Read how the inadequate resources of the Provincial Police, and an unenforceable law, prohibition, resulted in Lawson’s death and the lawlessness of the Crowsnest Pass.

This book is the true story of a war hero and lawman, Steve Lawson, and the impact of his murder on his family and society. It is an untold story that will surprise and touch the reader.

Too often crimes and criminals are glamourized at the expense of their victims. This book focuses not on the story of the crime, but on the life of a victim.

Available as a paperback at,

Prohibition Lawman

Soon to be available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Google Books and many others.


Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump – Alberta, Canada

September 25, 2009
Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump

Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump

Just south of Calgary, where I live, there is a significant historic site.

It’s called Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump and it’s a World Heritage Site as designated by UNESCO.

The site was in use for over 10,000 years by Native Americans.

The bison (buffalo) herds were driven into a chute by the Natives on the top of the cliff and forced over the cliff. When they hit the bottom they died or were severely wounded. Natives at the bottom finished off the survivors and then butchered them. The tribe had food to last the long hard winter. Every part of the bison was used. Nothing was wasted.

At the site there is a great interpretative centre manned by First Nations people who convey their heritage and history to visitors.

The illustration is a Canadian stamp issued a few years ago to draw attention to it and other historic sites in Canada.


70th Anniversary of World War II

September 1, 2009

wwii_book_valor_lgToday is the 70th anniversary of the beginning of the Second World War. The worst conflict of the 20th century the effects of which changed the world we live in today. It’s been described as the last “good” war because it was clear to everyone what we were fighting for, good versus evil.

Veterans of this war are dying everyday. We are rapidly losing our direct connections to this time. My father and two of his brothers served. His youngest brother paid the ultimate price.

It’s important in my opinion not to forget those who fought and especially those who gave their lives in the cause of freedom.

I’m fascinated with the stories of those who fought. It’s amazing to me how they suffered through it and got the job done. I’m not all that interested in generals and vast battle plans. I love to read about the men on the front lines, the average soldier. That’s who won the war.

I like to recommend the following for reading,

The War by Ken Burns (companion to the PBS Series)
Band of Brothers by Stephen Ambrose
Citizen Soldiers by Stephen Ambrose
The Greatest Generation by Tom Brokaw


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