The Grand Falls Tragedy 1907

The Grand Falls Tragedy.

In 1907 an American Engineer by the name of Lincoln came to Grand Falls to oversee construction of the dam across the Exploits River. The pictures used came from an Album that most likely belonged to him, and ended up back in Newfoundland via a sale in Ontario.  Building the dam itself was a monumental task, the biggest dam that had been ever built on the island and likely the biggest concrete structure that had been built in the Colony to that date.

Dam coffer dam construction
To build the Grand Falls dam the Exploits needed to be held back by a series of coffer dams so that the area could be excavated and the concrete dam put in. The man who supervised construction of the coffer dams was William Dorrity. Dorrity had considerable experience in building logging dams in his native Maine. He was later immortalized in the Badger Drive.(CNS photo Album)

Hundreds of men were employed, toiling to prepare the area for the dam. The construction work necessitated work on both sides of the river and since there was no bridge a “scaling board was set up. Initially there was a small set up which was used to build a bigger cable way. It was on this bigger cable way that the Grand Falls tragedy took place.

Before the larger cable way was built this smaller and more dangerous one was built to ferry workers across to work on building the south side tower and works. (CNS)
Before the larger cable way was built this smaller and more dangerous one was built to ferry workers across to work on building the south side tower and works. (CNS)

The cable way consisted of two towers each 70 feet high on opposite sides of the river. The span across was about 900 feet. Men traveled across in a “skip” which was basically a box suspended from the cableway. The whole set up was powered by steam generated in an engine room. The movement of the cables: up and down and back and forth was controlled from the engine room. The signals of which way to go were transmitted by electric lines from the dam site where a signal man was stationed.

Point of view for a passinger about to cross the Exploits on the cable way. September 27 1907, less than two weeks before the tragedy.
Point of view for a passinger about to cross the Exploits on the cable way. September 27 1907, less than two weeks before the tragedy.

It was though these signals that the tragedy occurred. The name of the signalman was recorded by the Daily News as a Mr. J. Moore[i] and some say that he left Grand Falls shortly after the accident. Whatever happened a misunderstanding occurred and men lost their lives.

It was 7:10 in the morning, October 8th 1907 when six workmen climbed onto the scale board to go to work on the south side of the Exploits. They were George Porter, Gregory Kelly, Lewis Kelly, Oswald Bursey (Or Bussey as stated in one source), Arthur Moore and William Hatt.

Cable way tower with partially completed dam.
Cable way tower with partially completed dam. At left you can see a communications pole that likely housed the wires for the signal system. A gang of men can be seen at work near the center . They were able to work in the middle of the river because of a coffer dam and cribbing.

When the scale board was still 20 feet away from the far side of the River the stop signal was accidentally given, followed by the signal to lower. The men on the cableway were plunged into the river. Since the controls were in the engine room there was a delay in raising the board because the engineer could not see what was going on.

George Porter and Gregory Kelly were able to climb up the cables and were then able to grab on to ropes thrown by men on shore. Moore, Bursey and Lewis Kelly were swept into the rapids and drowned. Hatt was caught on the scale board and was drowned there.

Three of the men were younger and did not have families. Bursey was from Clarenville, Moore was from St. John’s and had recently arrived on site. The Kelly’s were reportedly from Burnt Island.[ii]  Hatt lived at Norris Arm and had had a fairly long career in the lumbering industry in Central Newfoundland up to that point, left a young family.[iii] His widow was allowed to stay in the company town and the company made accommodations for her to take care of her family by taking in boarders.

Lord Harmsworth surveys dam construction.
Lord Harmsworth (At right)  surveys dam construction 1907-08.

A sense of gloom came over the worksite, it was one of the worst industrial accidents to have occurred in Newfoundland. The next month a flood carried away the coffer dam, delaying construction.

An inquiry was carried out in St. John’s under a Judge Conroy and a host of witnesses were called including the signal man and the engineer. One source suggests that the engineer was a third Kelly brother. At the time of writing I was unable to find out the findings of the inquiry.

Close to one hundred years later the names of the victims of the Grand Falls Disaster were immortalized on a workers memorial dedicated to those who had lost their lives on the job. The monument is situated within a few hundred feet of where the cableway was located. It is interesting to note that the date on the memorial is wrong. The memorial incorrectly states 1908 but the death records, George Hicks account and newspaper reports from the time all state that it was October 1907.

The deaths of four men was the largest single day loss of life to be associated with the Grand Falls mill.



[iii] The area where Gander was built was once named Hatties Camp because Hatt or a family member had operated a lumber camp there.

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