From The Scrap Book
June 8, 1990
By Dr. Bill Randall
Vanceboro – St. Croix R.R. Bridge
Most of us living in the Harvey area are frequent visitors into the State of Maine at Vanceboro. Sometimes we buy fuel for our automobiles and a few dollars’ worth of groceries. It doesn’t seem like any big deal to go into a foreign country. However, we occasionally meet with friends from other parts of Canada who think it is amazing that we cross an International Border so informally.
Many of the frequent visitors to Vanceboro realize how close the railroad bridge across the St. Croix River came to be coming the scene of an international event that might have changed the course of history.
By the end of December 1914, World War I had been under way for five months. Great Britain was at war with Germany. Canada was sending to England vast quantities of war material. Since the St. Lawrence River was frozen over, ships for overseas could not leave Montreal or Quebec but had to leave from the Atlantic ports of Saint John or Halifax. To do this the Canadian Pacific Railway had its lines across Maine entering Canada via the little bridge over the St. Croix River.
The United States of America was at that time neutral but British Military Intelligence seemed not to be concerned about the security of that railroad bridge. Not so, German Military Intelligence, Count Felix Van Papen was on the staff of the German Embassy in Washing ton, U.S.A. He was a spy who specialized in the study of Canadian Transportation. It was his conviction that the bridge at Vanceboro must be destroyed to inhibit war materials from being sent to the aid of England.
By an unusual coincidence a young man by the name of Werner Horn who had been a manager of a coffee plantation in Guatemala, reported to the Ger man Embassy in Washington seeking transport to his Father land so that he might serve his country Germany. Count Van Papen persuaded this young man that a more valuable and heroic service could be performed for the Fatherland if he would go to Vanceboro, Maine and blow up the Railroad Bridge.
At 6:45 PM Eastern Time, on December 30, 1914, a big blonde man in rough clothing and a lumberjack’s cap detrained at Vanceboro. Over his shoulder he carried a large brown bag which appeared to be a heavy load even for his strong back. He walked along the railroad track toward
Canada. Halfway to the river he hid the bag in a snow covered woodpile beside the tracks. He proceeded across the bridge care fully making mental notes of the construction and arrangement of the steel work. Because a bitter cold night was setting down on the valley Horn hurried back across the bridge, picked up his heavy bag and walked up the hill to the Vanceboro Exchange Ho tel. He registered as Olaf Hoorn from Staton Island, New York, a Dane looking for a farm for sale. He carried his own baggage up the stairs to his room. During the next two days, Hoorn went out for meals and made a couple of visits to the railroad depot for train schedules and time tables. At 7:00 PM, on Tuesday, January 1, 1915, Hoorn checked out of the hotel telling the clerk he was re turning to Boston on the 8:00 PM train. Actually he went down the hill and along the tracks to the steam pump station near the western end of the bridge. There he was to hide and wait for the last scheduled train to pass, which according to his time table and the one his mentor Van Papen had given him, should have been about midnight. When that train had gone Hoorn, stiffened with cold tugged his heavy bag across the bridge to the Canadian end; it was then nearly 40 degrees below freezing. Working under these conditions Hoorn opened his bag containing sixty pounds of high quality dynamite and began to place it near a steel girder. Suddenly he heard a train leaving the Vanceboro Station heading his way. In surprise he grabbed the dynamite, shoved it in the bag, and moved away from the rail. Then he himself hung by his fingertips over the ends of the ties. Had he let go he would have dropped into the freezing current. After the train passed, hastily, Hoorn resumed preparation for placing the explosives. He hung about forty pounds of the dynamite on the inner bridge truss about six feet above the rails. The smaller detonator charge was fastened to the truss at the level of the rails, to this package he attached a cap with fuse enough for fifty minutes. When this detonator charge went off, it would explode the larger one and dump the wrecked bridge into the river.
Almost ready to light the fuse and run back across the bridge, Hoorn heard another train come howling from the east. Again he made his miraculous suspension by his fingertips until the thundering train rolled by overhead. By this time Hoorn’s vision of becoming a German hero was being dulled by the 40 below temperature and a feeling of insecurity about Van Papen’s plan for the simplicity of blowing up the bridge. Now having little confidence in the time table schedule he decided to cut off all but fifteen minutes worth of fuse, light it and scramble back to Vanceboro before another unscheduled train could leave him dangling over the frigid river. His escape plan was to walk along the track to Lambert Lake thence southwestward through the woods to Princeton where he would catch a train to Calais and then to Boston.
The short fuse did its work while Hoorn was still struggling on frozen feet to get to the sanctuary of the Vanceboro Exchange Hotel. An earth shattering blast awakened nearly everybody in town. The hotel manager leaped from his bed at 1:10 AM on January 2, expecting to find the steam heating boiler in his own basement had exploded. On the way to the basement he was astonished to meet Olaf Hoorn begging for some snow or ice to treat his frost-bitten fingers. Expressing his bewilderment the manger heard the defeated Hoorn reveal his true identity and confess to the demolition attempt. The hotel manager ran to the station to notify the telegraph operator to alert all train traffic of the bridge wreckage.
The next day the Ameri can authorities arriving from Bangor along with railroad officials anxious to avert an international incident, and to save Horn from a Canadian lynch mob, locked him in the U.S. Immigration Detention room at the Rail road Station. He was charged with destruction of property and moved to Washington Co. jail at Machais. From there he was taken to Boston for trial and sat out the duration of World War I in a U.S. Federal Prison.
No further information as to the destiny of Oberleutenant Werner Horn is available.
The explosion at the bridge was not bad. Only the detonator charge exploded be cause nitroglycerine at minus 40 temperatures becomes almost inert. The railroad repair crew had the damaged track replaced and trains running again before noon of that same day.
From then until the end of the war there were sentries guarding the bridge 24 hours a day, on the Canadian side and then when the U.S. entered the war in 1917 guards were also placed on the Western end of the bridge.
Next time you drive across the St. Croix River at Vanceboro, take a brief look at the bridge that once was so close to being a focal point of an earth-shattering International event. Incidentally Custom regulations insist that all firearms or explosives crossing the border must be reported.
Source: Rev. Bill Randall’s “From The Scrapbook Vol. One.”