Devastation after a natural gas explosion in downtown Essex, February 14, 1980. (Photo courtesy of the Town of Essex)

Essex Remembers Blasts From Its Past

This weekend, officials with the Town of Essex hope you’ll remember that “Essex is a Blast!”

The town plans to commemorate two catastrophic explosions with a photo exhibit and the unveiling of a heritage plaque.

Back on August 10, 1907, the community was devastated when a boxcar full of dynamite parked just east of the Essex Railway Station exploded. The cargo had started to melt in the late summer heat and leaked through the floorboards of the boxcar. Once it hit the hot rails below, it exploded killing two railway workers instantly.

Damage in downtown Essex, August 10, 1907. (Photo courtesy of the Town of Essex)

Damage in downtown Essex, August 10, 1907. (Photo courtesy of the Town of Essex)

“There was little on the spot to see but a hole in the ground,” read a report in the Chatham Daily Planet back in the day. Damage was widespread throughout the town amounting to $250,000. Taking inflation into account, that would be more than $6-million today.

Essex Centre suffered a second massive explosion just feet away, this time on Valentine’s Day in 1980.

In the early morning hours, a driver drove his car into a natural gas meter embedded in the wall of a hardware store on Talbot Street, not far from the site of the first explosion. Within minutes the store filled with natural gas and the ensuing blast levelled a block of buildings along the east side of Talbot.

Most stores in the downtown core suffered some property damage as windows blew out, walls buckled, doors flew off their hinges, and ceiling tiles fell. Residents living nearby were tossed from their beds, and assistant planner Rita Jabbor says the blast was felt as far away as Detroit.

Essex firefighters arrived on the scene in just minutes and rescued one man from the rubble, and nobody died.

Damage in downtown Essex February 14, 1980. (Photo courtesy of the Town of Essex)

Damage in downtown Essex February 14, 1980. (Photo courtesy of the Town of Essex)

“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 Director of Community Services, Doug Sweet.

“Social media users have responded enthusiastically when we’ve posted photographs online in the past,” he says. “This event is an opportunity for people to see those photographs in a larger format and in a setting that is historically significant.”

Sunday’s event starts at 2pm with the unveiling of the bronze plaque. The Heritage Plaque Program recognizes sites that have historical, cultural or social significance to the community but are not designated under the Ontario Heritage Act.