Thousands of people drive past this site everyday, yet few of them are aware of a local tragedy took place here. On this site stood a dynamite factory for over 40 years that supplied explosives for mines in Canada west of the Great Lakes of Ontario.
In 1929, Canadian Industries Limited (CIL) purchased 1200 acres of land near East Selkirk for the purpose of constructing a high explosives plant. The new plant was to be known as “Brainerd Works”, named for Dr. Thomas Brainerd, a pioneer of power manufacturing in the Dominion.
Seventeen buildings were constructed by December 1934, including the office, storehouse, power house, shops, change house, shell house, mixing house, cartridge house, packing house, five magazines, and a dope house which was used when mixing non-explosive ingredients.
Many safety precautions were taken during construction – the most interesting being the 75-80 ton sand-filled barricades constructed around the buildings so that if there was an explosion it would blow straight up rather than sideways. No smoking, lighters, or cameras were allowed on the property. If you were caught ignoring the safety rules you were fired on the spot. Workers were also required to move slowly when working with the ready mixed explosives – an odd request, but any quick motion had the ability to ignite the materials.
The first high explosive manufactured on Dec. 10, 1934 consisted of a 1000 lb. mixing of 40% Polar Forcite Gelatin. At this time, employment at the plant included 30 people with a monthly payroll of about $2,000.
Disaster struck on August 29, 1945. At 2:30 pm, the plant was rocked with an explosion described as a mushroom in the air – 2 x 4’s flew and stuck like arrows upright in the ground. Three men were killed instantly; their names were William Rokosh, Emil Malmstrom, and John Drobot.
After more than 35 years of operations a new trend in manufacturing explosives developed; the materials were now being manufactured on the site of the mines. The plant closed on Sept. 11, 1970.
CIL Road and Old Henderson Highway
The C-I-L Dynamite Plant Site geocache site is located near East Selkirk, Manitoba, Canada at N 50º 07.250´ latitude and W 96º 51.441´ longitude. If you find the geocache and scan the QR code inside of it, it brings you here to learn more. Watch all of our videos on our YouTube Channel. Other heritage content can be found on our Red River North Heritage Youtube channel.
Looking around here at the new RM of St. Clements Public Works shop in East Selkir, Manitoba, Canada, you would never know one of the biggest disasters in the area happened right here, over 70 years ago.
Local resident, Fraser Stewart, vividly remembers. It was August 29, 1945. He was eight years old, outside playing at his family’s summer home near here, a peaceful place in the Canadian countryside. Then, suddenly, Fraser heard a great explosion and could see, in the distance, a large mushroom cloud of smoke. It must have been 1000 feet in the air. Of course, World War II was still raging, and ended shortly after on September 2, 1945. And in Fraser’s young mind, he thought this might be an enemy attack, but that was impossible because the war was in Europe, not here in East Selkirk.
Fraser found out what happened when his dad came home later that day. You see, not far from him was a dynamite factory. There had been an explosion – three men had just died in a tragic accident.
The C-I-L Brainerd Works dynamite plant began in the 1930s, during the depression, to manufacture powerful explosives for the mines in Canada, west of the Great Lakes of Ontario. The plant brought much needed work to the area. The building opened in 1935 and employed 30 people. It was located near rail lines and the river for shipping up Lake Winnipeg to the northern mines. It was a large compound with 17 buildings.
Safety wise, it was state of the art. Manitoba had never seen a business built to these standards before. The dynamite was made from a powerful and volatile explosive called forcite, manufactured in the C-I-L plants in eastern Canada. Any slight spark near it could cause an explosion, so every possible step was taken to be sure no spark could happen near the explosives.
Employees had to change clothes when they entered the site, could not carry any metal objects in their pockets, such as knives or coins, and the buildings and material used were designed to eliminate any possibility of a spark. Foreman Sam Rowley said there were very strict rules, like no running, no smoking, no matches, lighters, or cameras. You had to change your clothes to go to work. If you ignored these rules, you were fired on the spot.
Despite this accident, the Brainerd Works dynamite plant upheld stringent safety standards. By 1959, Brainerd Works had won 10 awards for their safety program.
Back on that day in 1945, Fraser’s dad had just talked to neighbour Mike Nadwidny, who worked at the dynamite plant. He was in the packing house at the time of the explosion. Mike told the newspaper, “I felt the shock and ran out. The place was up in the air! I rushed out to the plant and helped fight the fire.” For eleven years, the explosives plant had been accident free, until that fateful day at 2:37 PM.
The men who died had been cleaning up the cartridge-filling machine, when a spark ignited 100 pounds of forcite. The three men were killed instantly. A much larger quantity of forcite had just been removed, or the explosion could have been much more catastrophic.
The explosion started grass fires that were being fanned by a north wind toward the highly explosive cartridge storage house 110 yards away. Employees quickly manned the fire equipment and had the fires put out within an hour. Later, Plant Manager McNaughton commended the men for their coolness and efficiency in averting further disaster, and said “Every man knew his job and did it automatically, without a hitch.”
The Winnipeg Evening Tribune of August 30, 1945 said, “The place where the cartridge house stood was a scene of utter desolation. The blackened ground was littered for hundreds of yards, with large pieces of galvanized iron, machinery, and the wooden framework of the house.”
Victim John Drobott of Gonor, age 34, was married to Myrtle and had a son named Harold. He had just returned to the plant ten days before, after being on loan to the Transcona Cordite Plant for three years. Emil Malmstrom of Garson, age 35, was married to Elsie and had one eight year old daughter named Geraldine. Bill Rokosh of East Selkirk, age 28, was married to Stella and had one six year old daughter named Evelyn.
Even with the inquest, they never did find out why the explosions happened. Foreman Sam Rowley said, “It was a puzzler as to what really happened, and perhaps we will never know.”
In the 1950s, development of plastic explosives that were more stable, less volatile, and less expensive, began replacing dynamite. After 35 years, C-I-L Brainerd Works stopped manufacturing in 1970. The buildings were used for storage for many more years.
By 1982, most of the buildings were gone. The grounds were neutralized afterwards by setting off explosives, and after environmental testing to be sure the grounds were safe, the RM of St. Clements built their new Public Works building on the same site.