Though World War One occurred in Europe, St. Thomas once came close to being on the frontline. The railway was critical in Canada’s war effort; it was needed to move men, equipment, and supplies across the country. As the Railway Capital of Canada, St. Thomas played a huge role in this aspect of the war effort. It was this that made our small Canadian city, an ocean away from the battlefield, a target for a bomb plot!
In 1915, the United States of America was not yet in the war, and still maintained a relationship with Germany. With diplomacy continuing between the two nations, the German Consulate in San Francisco had become a hub for intelligence operations across North America. It was here that a plan was decided upon under orders from Consul General Franz von Bopp, to be followed through by Charles C. Crowley and Lewis J. Smith, both of America. Crowley was a criminal with eight fingers, having shot off two of them while cleaning his gun, while Smith was a well-dressed conman.
Crowley and Smith were assigned to target the stockyards adjacent to the Michigan Central tracks near the CASO Station on July 4th, 1915 at 11:00 p.m. The stockyards were full of horses that would be sent to the Allies’ war effort in Europe, and they intended to destroy these vital supplies. Their plan involved the two men boarding separate trains and smuggling dynamite over the border by skillfully switching their identical suitcases, avoiding customs for the one filled with the explosives.
The ruse worked, but apparently Smith had changed his mind, which he had previously done in other plots after growing nervous. He dumped the dynamite out in Detroit and instead filled the suitcase with bricks. When he came to St. Thomas, he merely purchased some clothing then left on a train to New York, thankfully without having carried out the plot.
Following his failure, Smith worked in Detroit at an automotive factory. After feeling as though he was being followed by Crowley, he went to the police and told his story. This revealed the workings of the German spy network to the authorities, leading to the conviction of nearly a dozen German spies. Among those sentenced were Crowley and von Bopp, who were convicted of violating the neutrality of the United States and were jailed for two years, while Smith walked free in exchange for his testimony. The situation resolved itself quite nicely, with no harm done to any horses, humans, or infrastructure in St. Thomas.
But imagine if Smith had not changed his mind – imagine how differently St. Thomas’ past would have played out.
Information courtesy of the Elgin Historical Society. Contact them for more details!