Revisiting the 1922 Gorrie explosion

I have slipped back into a bit of a habit, if you would like to call it that.

As of late, I have been spending a lot of my time flipping through archived copies of newspapers. At first, it was research for the Wingham Advance Times’ 150th-anniversary section, published in the Dec. 30, 2021 issue.

In the weeks leading up to that publication, I spent many hours finding myself amazed by the stories of past days.

Since that publication has gone to press, I have found myself taking any excuse I can find to turn back a few years.

I suppose it is not the worst habit. You might call it a newfound interest, but in a way, I have been doing this for many years.

You see, when I was a teenager I participated in an exchange program run by Rotary International. The program allowed me to live in Brazil for a year. During my adventure, I kept a journal. I would jot down the events of the day or my feelings of homesickness or excitement for a new adventure on the horizon.

Since returning home 12 years ago, I still find myself randomly opening up that journal to remember.

That journal is perhaps one of my most prized possessions. It is filled with memories I wouldn’t remember if I hadn’t written them down 12 years ago.

For me, looking back in archived copies of newspapers is just like looking into someone else’s memories.

Really it is not too far off of my long-time interest in current affairs, especially local news, as a newspaper reporter.

Often people say newspapers are the first draft of history books. It makes sense that while I am working on the first draft, I will also enjoy looking back at others’.

I have made it a bit of a habit to look back in the newspaper to random years.

On the day that I am writing this column, I looked back to Jan. 19, 1922.

On the front page of the Wingham Advance, in the center at the top, perhaps the best spot for a story, read the headline: EXPLOSION AT GORRIE – Acetylene Plant Blew Up And Caused Great Havoc.

The article details what the newspaper called “a terrific explosion” that shook the village at 6 p.m. on the Saturday prior.

The cause of the blast was the town’s acetylene plant.

Also known as ethyne, acetylene is a colourless, pungent-smelling hydrocarbon gas, which burns with a bright flame. It is used in welding and carbide lamps. Acetylene is highly flammable. Under high pressure or temperature, it can cause a fire or explosion.

The Advance reported that “the explosion had blew up a building, which was broken into kindling wood, a whole block away.”

“So great was the detonation that it was heard for miles around, while windows were shattered all over the town by the concussion; windows as far away as the station, one-half mile from the plant were broken.”

The buildings that sustained the most damage were the Township Hall, the Presbyterian Church, and the Public School. The Advance explained that these buildings had been completely stripped of all glass.

Another writer, on an interior page of the Jan. 19, 1922 issue, wrote that the school had remained closed until the Thursday after the explosion, to allow for the clean up of glass and boarding up of windows.

Luckily, no one was hurt in this disaster.

I imagine the days following the explosion were no pleasure, as historical climate reports show the region saw over 10 cm of snowfall the following day, and temperatures dropping to as low as -19 degrees Celsius.

I know many of us are not happy to be trapped in our homes right now, but imagine being trapped at home with no windows in a blizzard.

Suddenly, the comfort of our home doesn’t sound so bad, now does it?

While I have been spending more time than normal at home, I have found myself in a perpetual state of tidying. I no longer can walk to the kitchen for a drink without finding something that needs to be put away or a mess that needs to be cleaned up.

Now imagine, being trapped at home, without windows, and trying to clean up shattered glass in freshly fallen snow.

Sounds next to impossible to me, and makes me thankful for my home full of toddler toys.

I wonder how much of the shattered glass was just left, covered in snow, and rediscovered after the spring thaw?

Given that the month of January is often allocated to reflection, I hope you enjoyed my reflection on a story from 100 years ago.

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Kelsey Bent is a Midwestern Newspapers reporter. She can be reached for comments by emailing kbent@midwesternnewspapers.com. 

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