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The great James Street Hardware explosion of '63

In this edition of Remember This, the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library looks back at an incident that rocked a neighbourhood, but also brought Saultites together in a common cause
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2018.2.57
James Street Hardware, now Spadoni's furniture, at James Street and Cathcart. Sault Ste. Marie Public Library archive photo

From the archives of the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library:

On November 7, 1963 at 4:30 p.m., an explosion rocked Sault Ste. Marie’s west end.

Anxiety gripped the city and people jammed the phone lines, trying to determine what happened and where. Many feared that the blast had come from Algoma Steel; earlier that year, four employees died when a coke oven exploded, and the memory was still fresh in people’s minds.

But the explosion didn’t come from the steel plant. It came from a nearby store: James Street Hardware, near the intersection of James and Cathcart.

A leak in the gas main behind the building was later determined to be the cause of the catastrophic blast. The explosion was so powerful that it lifted the roof and destroyed the first two storeys of the building.

It shattered the windows, sending shards of broken glass flying to the opposite side of the street. A truck driver passing by the store felt his vehicle lift off the road, and approximately twelve nearby people found themselves thrown off their feet. The force of the blast even destroyed a parking meter out front, leaving it frozen with 40 minutes of time remaining.

Despite the destruction, one witness, talking to Sault Star reporters, said that the explosion “was a quiet sort of thing.” He heard a “dull thud” before blacking out. When he came to, he was on the floor, surrounded by smoke, and the building was in ruins.

In the wake of the explosion, people rushed to help, working together in a display of unity and dedication that witnesses described as unprecedented. The steel plant brought in a large crane to remove parts of the shattered building and sent emergency workers to assist.

Plant employees, firefighters, police officers, search and rescue personnel, and neighbours worked together to sift through the rubble in search of survivors.

As they searched, stories emerged of all of the near misses: the two people at James Street Hardware who walked away unscathed, the crowd of steelworkers cashing their paycheques there an hour before the blast occurred, the children who normally played in the alley out back but instead stayed inside to colour that day.

Others were not so lucky, with nine people reporting injuries that ranged from cuts to torn ligaments and joint dislocations. Among the injured was an office employee found trapped beneath a safe; it took hours for her to be found and pulled from the building, and at one point, fear for her survival was so great that a priest was brought in. When rescue workers got her to safety, she immediately asked them for lipstick.

Also counted among the injured was an ambulance driver who slipped on some glass shards and broke his wrist when entering the building.

Many of the injured were brought to the new General Hospital, which had just been extensively rebuilt. The hospital had held its grand opening mere hours before, and their state-of-the-art x-ray machines and laboratories were quickly put to use.

However, as the hours wore on, rescuers were forced to slow the operation for fear that the building would collapse further. One store employee, Robert Fera, was still unaccounted for. Rescue crews initially believed they had found his body, but as they cleared more rubble, they discovered it was a mop, partially visible under the debris.

Almost 12 hours after the explosion, Robert Fera’s body was found. He was at the back of the store, close to the source of the blast, and he likely would have died instantly. According to a Sault Star article covering the explosion, his funeral procession was “one of the longest ever seen” locally.

The blast had a devastating impact on James Street Hardware, destroying much of the business and throwing its future into jeopardy. Early estimates put the damage at hundreds of thousands of dollars. However, the Spadoni family rebuilt and continued to run James Street Hardware & Furniture for decades. In the ‘90s, the business evolved into the form it is known as today: Spadoni’s Furniture.

This past year, Spadoni’s celebrated its 100th anniversary. The store has changed over the years, from a bicycle repair shop, to a hardware store, to a furniture store. The Spadoni family has overcome setbacks and tragedies to proudly serve the community for a century.

Each week, the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library and its Archives provides SooToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past.

Find out more of what the Public Library has to offer at www.ssmpl.ca and look for more Remember This? columns here