Explosive Times at Vanceboro

By Pat Higgins

Mainers hardly think of themselves as having much to do with World War I. Well, maybe those who have studied the state know about the Bath-built William P. Frye, that 332 foot long steel windjammer sunk off the coast of Brazil in 1915 by German raiders. Despite the fact that America wouldn't enter the war until 1917 and was bound by the laws of neutrality, this Maine ship was on her way to England with a load of wheat. The Frye was actually the first American ship sunk in World War I, but that's another story.

The average American can just about dredge up the following information on America's entry into World War I: 'America was neutral but would inevitably join the war. Then, almost out of the blue, the Germans sank the Lusitania. Americans on board were killed. The Lusitania was a catalyst, or perhaps an excuse, for America to join the allies in the war against Germany.' This is certainly the short story! We are missing a whole chunk of history, cause and effect, espionage and sabotage. And one act of sabotage (ok, maybe it was almost comic opera) took place in Vanceboro, Maine.

"Not quite the end of the earth"

"Whoever heard of Vanceboro?" you might ask. "And where in heck is it?" Vanceboro is a little town at the headwaters of the St. Croix River,111 miles northeast of Bangor and just across the river from McAdam, New Brunswick. Today it has 147 residents plus whatever kayakers and fishermen might be enjoying the surroundings. Even the town website claims that Vanceboro is "not quite the end of the earth", but occasionally the end can be seen from town. Why would this obscure place be the target for German sabotage? Well, actually location is everything.

Vanceboro was originally established by lumber baron and dubious character William Vance. Originally from Concord, NH, Vance joined the Cape Ann Society in 1784, a group of largely loyalist colonists who took up England's offer of land grants in New Brunswick. Vance himself claimed to be an American patriot who marched through Maine with Benedict Arnold to attack Quebec, but in 1784 he was willing to sail for Canada and take an oath of allegiance to England. He was soon wheeling and dealing, and, within ten years, he was back on the west side of the St. Croix where he (re)asserted himself as an American citizen. (Regarding the international border, William Vance was not unlike many other eastern Mainers of his time or thereafter. In fact, the exact location of that border was not even agreed upon or established until the Webster Ashburton Treaty of 1842.) During a lifetime of hijinx and exploits, "Squire" Vance exploited his little corner of the world, made a fortune in logging and became a nefarious politician. Vanceboro, a logging camp and trading post, was just one town in his little empire. (Vanceborohs)

Railroad builders of the 19th century didn't pay much attention to the international border either. By the end of the century, Vanceboro was a major border crossing for freight trains linking St. John, NB with Montreal and Quebec. A quick look at the map proves that the shortest route between these three cities is right across Maine, international border or no border. To the Canadian Pacific Railroad, who opened their line in 1889, this route was an important shortcut especially during the winter months when the St. Lawrence River was frozen. It was faster, cheaper and safer to ship by rail across Maine to the open water port cities of St. John and Halifax. Canadian shipping was a major source of the total tonnage shipped on Maine railroads.

When the Great War began in Europe in 1914, Canada was, of course, drawn into the fighting by their relationship with England. Furthermore Canada could supply the war effort with a vast amount of raw and manufactured materials, food stuffs and troops. All that was needed was the means to transport them to the European front. Troops and material began to make their way across Maine to the Maritime ports despite US neutrality. Nobody seemed to mind except the Germans who complained long and loud but with little effect. Soon they began to take a different tack which...

"Left nothing to be desired... seditions, strikes in munitions plants, attacks upon ships carrying supplies to the Allies, bomb outrages."
Horst von der Goltz, German agent

At the start of the war, Germany had the largest secret service operations in the world but had nothing in place in the US to stop the movement, covertly or otherwise, of goods and troops to Europe from the Americas. It was also clearly a certainty that the US would not act or remain neutral for very long. In the summer of 1914 when the war began in Europe, the German ambassador, Count Johann Von Bernstorff arrived in Washington from Germany with a specially picked staff to set up and operate an espionage ring that would disrupt the manufacture and trade of war materials in the United States and Canada. Von Bernstorff's espionage team was very well funded with $150 million dollars (Balkhage and Landau). They immediately began to purchase war materials secretly and in volume to prevent them from reaching the allies. The embassy was also very active in forging passports that would help German nationals and US citizens of German decent to reach Germany and join the Imperial Army. Captain Franz von Papen, allegedly Von Bernstorff's military attache and the real bad guy in our story, began almost immediately to solicit spies and saboteurs to set in motion Germany's more nefarious plans. Within a very few months, a policy of "buy up or blow up" was in place, and things began to happen. On January 1, 1915 an explosion at the Roebling Company in Trenton, NJ began a series of fires and explosions in US plants producing war supplies for the Allies just as the Vanceboro Bridge explosion later that month began a series of sabotage attempts on shipping and transportation.

On January 3, a few days after the Roebling explosion, the German embassy in New York received a telegram (No.386) from Berlin labeled "Secret", in which the General Staff instructed that "vigorous measures should be taken to destroy the Canadian Pacific in several places for the purpose of causing a lengthy interruption of traffic." (Landau, 20). Von Papen began immediately to undertake such measures. He soon recruited Oberleutenant Werner Horn for covert duty in America. When war was declared, Horn was on leave from the German Imperial Army and was working as manager of a Guatemalan coffee plantation. He made his way to New York seeking transportation back to Germany to serve his country. Instead of the special forged passport Horn sought from Van Papen, he found himself with a ticket to Vanceboro.

"Nothing arouses more suspicion in a small town than a stranger..."
Elizabeth Armstrong Low

On January 18, 1915, Captain von Papen wrote a check for $700 to Werner Horn for the Vanceboro job. (Landau, 305) Presumably, Horn was then prepped with whatever information and training were required for the Vanceboro job, given a suitcase loaded with explosives and sent off to Maine. However, Horn was not particularly well prepared. Barton, who claims to have received his information, at least in part, from Bruce Bielaski of the Bureau of Investigation of the Department of Justice (FBI), describes Horn as big and not very bright. He proved unequal to the task when faced with the sheer cussed nosiness of small town Americans and the formidable Maine winter.

Wearing rough workman's clothing and carrying a heavy suitcase, Horn arrived in Vanceboro on Saturday January 30, 1915. He arrived on the morning, or maybe it was the evening, train. A little research turns up a number of different stories in the chain of events. Everybody seems to have enjoyed telling and retelling (and perhaps embellishing) the story. Even Horn got into the act with his story of "Tommy", his secret accomplice. But one step at a time...

Upon arrival, Horn went up the hill to the Vanceboro Exchange Hotel. Or maybe he took a walk down the track to look over his intended target, the railroad bridge across the St. Croix. At any rate, as a stranger he immediately became the object of scrutiny by every resident of Vanceboro who saw him. According to Barton, Horn hid his suitcase behind a wood pile on a siding, walked the short distance to the bridge and inspected it carefully. Then he retrieved his suitcase and went on up to the Exchange. Horn's little inspection tour was observed by at least three people who reported their observations to the inspector at the Immigration Station.

The inspector met Horn on his way to the hotel just to ask a few questions and satisfy his curiosity. Horn assured the man that he was just a Danish farmer, Olaf Hoorne, traveling up from New York to look over the area and perhaps purchase some farm land. The inspector did not speak Danish. There was nothing in this conversation to provoke suspicion, and Horn went on his way (Low and Barton). He spent the next two days maintaining a low profile, watching the trains from his window and studying their schedules. Nothing seemed unusual except the cleaning lady moved his suitcase while cleaning his room and commented on it's great weight (Barton, 86). By Monday night Horn was ready to make his move. (The following account is pieced together from Low and Barton. Low's account is quite short; Barton's account contains more detail but seems a bit too sensational.)

"Malicious Mischief"

Puffing on a big cigar (Barton, 86), Horn and his big suitcase checked out of the hotel. The German told the hotel proprietor that he was leaving on the evening train. He never boarded the train but instead waited at the station until after midnight. This must have been an arduous wait for a man who had spent the last five years in warm and sunny Guatemala! Low claims that the temperature was 30-40 degrees below zero that night!

According to some accounts (but not Low or Barton), Horn might have taken the time to put on his German uniform. It seems unlikely he would leave the hotel in uniform. It also seems a bit cold for changing clothes in the bushes or on a (presumably) deserted train platform. However, everything Horn said later would indicate he was quite frightened of being judged a spy and hung. Twisted logic indicates that a bomber in uniform would be committing an act of war and not espionage. Also the story is a lot sweeter if the bomber is a German officer in uniform!

Sometime after midnight, Horn walked out onto the bridge and started for the Canadian side. Twice, by his own account, he tripped and nearly fell over the side in the pitch black night. Then, with frozen fingers, Horn placed nearly 80 pounds of dynamite on one of the girders. Before he could finish, he was surprised by a north bound train and then a south bound train barreling across the bridge. There was very little room out there for a man to escape disaster. Horn ended up, not once but twice, squeezing down between the ties and hanging by his frozen hands over the river (Barton, 91-92). Believe this if you want, but it seems most implausible. More likely Horn was grandstanding for his audience after the fact.

In his confession given some days later to Agent Bielaski, Horn spoke repeatedly of his desire not to hurt anybody during his bombing of the trestle. Intelligence, provided by von Papen, indicating that there would be no trains between midnight and dawn led Horn to believe that he would be able to serve the Fatherland without actually hurting anyone. The appearance of two trains on the bridge after midnight made Horn change his plans in order, he claimed, to prevent anyone from being hurt. He had been provided with a 50 minute fuse which would allow him ample time to escape (to exactly where was never stipulated- it was, after all, the end of the earth!). To insure that no other trains would speed out onto the bridge as it exploded, Horn claimed to have shortened the fuse to three minutes. Then he lit the fuse, presumably with the cigar, and set off back across the bridge and up to the hotel.(Barton, 91). He may actually have shortened the fuse, but three minutes seems a bit short for him to make it back across the dark bridge and up to the hotel unseen before all hell broke loose. At 1:10 am on the morning of February 2, 1915, the dynamite exploded. The ground shook, windows broke all over town, and people bolted out of bed! Some thought there had been a train wreck or a boiler explosion; others thought there had been an earthquake.

"I freeze my hands! You see, I freeze my hands! What should I do about it?"
(Horn to Tague)

The startled hotel proprietor, Aubrey Tague, went down to check his boiler and on the return trip came across a strange site. Werner Horn was in the bathroom running hot water over his frozen hands! Tague never expected to see Horn again and asked him what was the matter. Horn displayed his frozen hands and asked Tague what to do. Well, of course, hot water is the wrong thing. Tague fetched snow to rub on the man's hands and then sent him up to rooms on the third floor for the rest of the night. No fool, Tague put two and two together and knew there was some connection between the frozen foreigner and the explosion.(Barton, 87)

Like most townspeople, Deputy Sheriff George Ross was also awakened by the blast. By his own account, he said, "The noise disturbed me so that I could not get to sleep." His house was only 300-400 feet from the bridge, but he apparently did not go out to check what was going on until dawn. Ross's account of his activities certainly disproves the stories that have him driving by the bridge, seeing Werner Horn setting his dynamite and arresting him before the charge exploded!

Investigation by other, more curious townspeople soon uncovered the source of the explosion; Tague notified the railroad officials and also Ross. The bridge was closed, and traffic rerouted. As Horn so desired, no one was hurt. Arriving early the following morning, the officials investigated the damage and closed the line down for repairs. Horn wasn't much of a dynamiter. The noisy explosion had caused little damage - a few twisted girders and six displaced railroad ties (Low). Repairs were quickly undertaken, and the line was reopened within a couple days. By all accounts Horn had enough explosives to do the trick but was not competent enough to lay the charge effectively. Big bang - little damage.

Two Canadian constables soon joined Deputy Ross and the representatives of the Central Maine and the Canadian Pacific railroads at the Exchange Hotel. Tague filled them in on the activities of the suspicious foreigner now sleeping soundly on the third floor. At 7 am the party knocked on Horn's door. According to Barton, when Horn saw the Canadian constables' uniforms he reached for a pistol hidden in his coat which was lying on the nearby bed. The Canadians secured the gun preventing a potentially nasty confrontation. Ross identified himself as an American law officer, and Horn immediately surrendered to him saying, "Oh, that's all right then. I thought you were all Canadians. I would not think of harming an American officer" (Barton, 88). Of course it was all right! If Horn was taken by the Canadians he would certainly have been tried and hung for espionage and sabotage. The Americans proved a safer bet. Ross arrested Horn for malicious mischief; he could not do more because the actual explosion took place on the Canadian end of the bridge. Breaking windows all over town on a very cold winter night certainly qualifies as malicious!

"I certify on my honor as a German officer that the foregoing statements are true except..." 
Werner Horn 

Almost immediately after the explosion, the Canadians began to talk about extradition. Werner Horn did not want to go to Canada where he was certain he would be hung. On the other hand, feelings were running high on the US side of the border as well. Horn was moved down to Machias for his own protection. He was not the only one who wished to block extradition to Canada. The German embassy was most anxious that he stay on the US side of the border where they might have some influence or control. Ambassador Bernstorff argued against the extradition based upon the fact that the explosion was an act of war because it furthered military interests (Landau, 20). In the end, Horn's own demeanor and behavior may have kept him on the US side of the border as much as the ambassador's legal arguments.

Soon after his arrest, Horn began to talk - but not enough to implicate Von Papen or the German embassy. Instead he clouded the issue. Most notably he claimed to have come to Vanceboro with an empty suitcase. There he met a white man, 35-40 years old and clean shaven, on the Canadian side of the bridge who gave him the dynamite. The password between the two men was "Tommy" hence the mysterious man became known by that name. Officials on both sides of the border went nuts looking for the elusive accomplice. Some days later, when he signed a confession for Agent Bielaski, Horn put this little caveat at the end: "I certify on my honor as a German officer that the foregoing statements are true except as to "Tommy"; that I did not buy the nitroglycerin, but received it in New York, and took it with me in the suitcase." (Barton, 94). The wild goose chase was for naught.

Washington did not leave the investigation of Horn's sabotage to the locals. It was afterall an international incident that required an FBI investigation. Bruce Bielaski, the FBI agent sent to Maine, spent five days interviewing Horn and pieced together the saboteur's story. Horn repeatedly refused to divulge the identity of his superiors."I cannot say anything that would involve the consulate or the embassy - Germany is at war..." or "I cannot speak of the man who gave the orders ..." (Barton, 89). Horn came across as "guileless", "childlike", and although he refused to name names, he did reveal a great deal. Bielaski was able to wrangle enough information from the prisoner to implicate Von Papen and others at the German embassy and to reveal some of their activities and methods. Furthermore, Horn may have come across as not too bright, but he was smart enough not to want to cause any deaths. This honest ingenuousness seems to have been his saving grace; people believed him when he said he did not mean to do any physical harm to real people at Vanceboro but acted only to serve his country. In the end, Horn stayed in the US and pleaded guilty to transporting explosives on a common carrier that also transported passengers for hire. He was tried before the US District Court in Boston and was sentenced to the Federal Penitentiary at Atlanta, Georgia where he served 18 months.

The explosion gave Vanceboro its moment of fame. Newspaper headlines across the country read "German Saboteur Attempts to Destroy International Railroad Bridge at Vanceboro, Maine" (Low). Not only did war hysteria run high in the newspapers, but it was also featured in movie theaters. The sabotage of the Vanceboro Bridge was a media opportunity. A number of film crews arrived in town looking for newsreel footage but left with nothing truly usable. However, Louis DeRochemont, at the time a freelance cameraman in Massachusetts, was able to capture the story and launch a career as a Hollywood producer. DeRochemont conned Deputy Ross into a reenactment of the arrest and combined it with footage of the bridge damage and repairs into a newsreel that he sold to a national distributor. Low remembers that her father, owner of the Vanceboro theater, had a copy. Today, DeRochemont's newsreel is available at the Northeast Historic Film Archives in Bucksport. You can see it online at their collaborative streaming video site with Maine Roadrunner.

"For God's sake, don't take any compromising papers with you..."
Friends of von Igel regarding his trip to Germany

During the period from January 1915 until America's entry into the war, more than forty American factories and transportation centers were damaged or destroyed by arson or incendiary bombs. At sea, bombs were discovered on some 47 ships carrying goods from the US to allied ports. One German bombmaker claimed that he made bombs that destroyed $10,000,000 worth of cargo on more than 36 different ships. Not included in this list are the William Frye which was sunk by German warships or the Lusitania which was torpedoed by a U-boat. (Landau includes a detailed timeline of espionage events as an appendix.)

Multitudes of fires and explosions were triggered at numerous chemical and powder plants throughout New Jersey and in Seattle, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Delaware, (closer to home) Acton, Massachusetts and many other locations. Prime targets on the Canadian Pacific railroad shifted to the west after Vanceboro but the railroad was never halted as desired by the Germans. Railroad yards, trains and canals were targeted in New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and elsewhere. On July 2, 1915 there was even an explosion in the corridor in the Senate wing of the US Capitol. All were reported in the press.

Surprisingly, the American government seemed disposed to ignore Germany's transgressions of American neutrality on the high seas, at its borders and even in its factories. The Germans skillfully denied everything. The press was not held back at all by diplomacy; soon the newspapers were reporting sensational stories of sabotage and plots, both real and imaginary, at furious pace. In September 1915, things began to turn around when the British intercepted and published correspondence that made it impossible for Van Papen and others to stay in America. Von Papen referred to us as "idiotic Yankees"; Austro-Hungarian Ambassador Constantin Dumba made disparaging remarks about the president and American foreign policy. This was just the beginning. Soon, the state department pulled together enough evidence from various wide spread investigations to have the two men sent home.

In December 1915, Van Papen sailed to Holland through England on a safe conduct pass. He must soon have been reminded of the meaning of the term 'idiotic', perhaps also foolish and stupid. Von Papen carried with him a large number of incriminating documents and correspondence that were seized by the British as he passed through Falmouth, England. Von Papen was beside himself over the loss, but the English refused to return anything claiming that "the safe conduct referred to his person and not to his effects" (Landau, 54). A short time later, his secretary, Wolf von Igel, lost equally incriminating correspondence, notes and check books when he traveled through the British lines ... even though he had been warned by his friends and his ambassador.

The US government acted so slowly in the deportation of the agents that the Germans had time to transition Van Papen's duties to others; they hardly skipped a beat! The following year on July 30th, the Germans pulled off their largest explosion at Black Tom, a mile long section of filled land, island and pier on the Jersey shore opposite the Statue of Liberty. Two million pounds of munitions stored at the shipping and warehouse center were ignited causing an explosion that could be heard a hundred miles away, broke windows in New York and Brooklyn, leveled buildings on Ellis Island and caused wide spread panic. It was a lot bigger boom than Vanceboro. Black Tom and the continuing, numerous smaller explosions led to general hysteria in the press and a frightened and suspicious populous.

The investigations and the documents confiscated in England together with those in a briefcase snatched from a German attache on a New York elevated train laid out the whole conspiracy to dupe the American government, violate its neutrality and destroy lives, businesses and jobs. America was horrified when confronted with these revelations of their government's incompetence. But ... they also understood that America was violating its own neutrality to make a buck selling war materials and, in fact, was strongly connected with the allies. War was inevitable, but Americans continued to hold back from complete entanglement in European affairs. Their young men were not dying "over there". Despite the espionage and the media, Americans remained divided on war with Germany. Consequently, President Wilson, even with the weight of all this evidence behind him and fresh incriminations coming to light each day, did not sever relations with Germany until February 1917 or finally declare war until March 6, 1917, a long time after the sinking of the William Frye and the Lusitania or the Vanceboro Bridge explosion.

Maine's Last Passenger Train?

When Elizabeth Low wrote her article 59 years after the Vanceboro Bridge explosion, the Canadian Pacific's express was still using the trestle bridge. At the time, it was operating as Maine's last passenger train. By the 1990's, the era of passenger rail travel ended when the Canadian Pacific divested itself of the Vanceboro and Maine lines in favor of concentrating its interests on lines west of Montreal. The impact of the St. Lawrence Seaway, icefree and open all year long, caught up with the need for east bound rail freight. Today, commerce no longer depends on shipping goods east to the Maritime ports in order to reach open water. The Maine shortcut is no longer necessary, but Vanceboro remains a 24/7 customs port of entry. Just recently, in December of 2001, passenger train service was resumed in Maine with daily Portland to Boston runs, and perhaps this will be the first step in the return of passenger service throughout the state.


Balkhage, H.R. and A.A. Hahling. The Black Tom Explosion. The American Legion Magazine. August 1964. Reprinted at GetNewJersey <http://www.getnj.com/jchist/blacktoma.shtml>.

Barton, George. "The Artless German who Dynamited the Vanceboro Bridge." More Real Spies. New York: Nova, 1966. (Originally copyrighted by The Page Company, 1919.)

Landau, Captain Henry. The Enemy Within: The Inside Story of German Sabotage in America. New York: G.P.Putnam's Sons, 1937.

Low, Elizabeth Armstrong Low. "The Bridge Over the River St. Croix."

Malizia, Joseph P. The Day World War I Came to Washington County." Discover Maine. Washington County Edition. 2000, pp. 50-52. (This article is largely a rewrite of Elizabeth Low's account.)

Vanceboro Historical Society. <http://vanceborohs.tripod.com/>.

Vanceboro, Maine <http://smslowe.tripod.com/vanceboromaine/>.

Special thanks to Danny Beers and the folks in Vanceboro plus some nice railroad gentlemen that I met in cyberspace

c2002 Pat Higgins

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