News

FALLEN WORKERS: Swishing sound signalled death

Photo Caption: Joseph Dumoulin and wife Victoria (Monette) with adoptive baby, ca. 1919. — Photo courtesy Mark Dumoulin

Photo Caption: Joseph Dumoulin and wife Victoria (Monette) with adoptive baby, ca. 1919. — Photo courtesy Mark Dumoulin

The date was Saturday, Oct. 20, 1928 and the place, the Welland Ship Canal at Section 4 in Thorold, just below the Ontario Paper Co. Ltd. Joseph Dumoulin, a general labourer or ”mucker”, had reported to work that day, just as he had the previous four months since arriving in Niagara.

Dumoulin, a French Canadian from Grenville, Quebec, was born Sept. 28, 1897, the son of Charles Dumoulin and Henriette Larocque. According to census records, he had eight brothers and sisters, one of whom, Anthony, may have also been working in Thorold at the same time as Joseph. Dumoulin was married to Victoria Monette and living on Battle Street with their two children, Edward and Réal Théodore. Leaving for work on the canal that fateful Saturday, it would be the last time that his family would see him alive.

Dumoulin was part of a crew of approximately 45 men doing preparation work for the construction of a dock for the Ontario Paper Co. Ltd., located just southeast of present day Lock 7 in Thorold. Crews were working in the new Canal channel, 60 to 80 feet (24.3 m) below the mill, doing the final clearing necessary for the forms to be brought in and the concrete poured for the new dock’s foundation and supports. Dumoulin, along with a dozen other men, was working near some dump cars completing final hand trimming.

It was 4 o’clock in the afternoon when, according to the later testimony of steam shovel operator, George Doherty, he heard a terrible sound – variously described by witnesses as a “swish”, a “crashing noise”, or a “deep chug” that caused him to quickly look back toward the cut, just in time to see the east wall collapsing. While subsequent inquest testimony would differ on some of the particulars, all those either part of or witness to the tragedy agreed that the swiftness of events to follow left absolutely no time to react.

Excavations had been taking place in what was described as “heavy blue clay” that seemed almost “rock-like” in its hardness. This was one of the reasons why no shoring for the walls was considered necessary in the cut where the crews were working. According to reports at the time, however, days of heavy rainfall had turned the clay into a “quagmire”; witnesses frequently used terms such as “oily mess” or “gumbo” to describe conditions. On the day of the accident it is believed that sufficient water seepage from above the bank had taken place to undermine this thick, heavy mass, finally causing it to slide.

A section at the base of the east wall, approximately 200 feet long (61 m) and 10 feet high (3 m), exploded outward. Witnesses, grasping for words to describe the horrifying scene which followed, talked of an “avalanche” or “lava flow” of oily clay which, because of its thickness, drove the helpless workers before it, hurling them over top of the dump cars “like shots from a catapult.” With the base support now gone, this “eruption” was quickly followed by the collapse of the wall’s upper layers, with more than 2,000 cubic yards and tons of additional clay now tumbling down to fill the channel where, only seconds before, 14 men had been working.

Miraculously, most of those directly caught in the collapse somehow survived, being driven rather than buried by the slide and literally thrown clear of its worst effects. Tragically, this was not the case with Joseph Dumoulin. Of those working in the cut, he was the closest to the east wall. While some would later speculate that he had attempted to run, only to have his foot snagged by the railway track, the most likely explanation of his death is that he was instantly overwhelmed by the “lava flow”, being driven along until pinned against one of the dump cars and crushed, before being buried.

Frantic rescue efforts were begun almost immediately, with Dumoulin’s body finally being found under five feet of clay at about 7:30 p.m. It was 10 o’clock before they could actually free him from the twisted rails and clay. Once taken to the local undertaker, R.W. Williams, it would be several hours more before the body could be cleaned of the oily clay that continued to cling to it like glue.

According to the Thorold Post, a service was held for Joseph Dumoulin at the Church of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary in Thorold, followed by burial in an unmarked grave at Lakeview Cemetery on Wednesday, Oct. 24.

The next day, the inquest ruled events “purely accidental”, with no blame attached to either the company, Peter Lyall and Sons, or its employees. Not everyone at the time agreed with this ruling, some openly questioning whether more could not have been done to prevent this tragedy. Also largely lost in the rushed proceedings, which lasted only ninety minutes, was the fact that Joseph Dumoulin was not the only worker to lose his life as a direct result of that day’s events. Mike Koner was also a victim and, like Dumoulin, his story, deserves to be told.

This article is part of a series remembering the men whose lives were lost in the construction of the Welland Ship Canal. The Welland Canal Fallen Workers Memorial Task Force will unveil a memorial to the workers in the fall of 2017. To learn more or to make a donation please visit: www.stcatharines.ca/donate

 



Featured Businesses

Go to the Marketplace »