The Remembrance Day That Rocked Leduc

Pipestone Flyer

 

The Leduc Hotel Co. Ltd on Main Street Leduc Circa 1950

 

Remembrance Day 1950 began in Leduc as a typical Alberta fall day. People attending the Legion Remembrance Day ceremonies were greeted with a crisp day with the temperature hovering around -15C with a high sky of clouds.  Shortly after Mayor Fred Johns laid a memorial wreath people began to disburse and began to go about their day. Within minutes their day would change forever and news of what happened next would circle the world.

While Leduc citizens were either attending the ceremony or preparing for lunch a new natural gas line that had been recently installed was being tested. In those days the gas was odorless and any leaks could go unnoticed until there was a danger to life. One of the first buildings to agree to have natural gas was the Leduc Hotel.  

The Leduc Hotel was the first brick building to be built in Leduc. Dr. Sutherland built the building in 1902. He and his family lived upstairs and ran his medical practice downstairs along with a drug store and later the Merchant Bank moved from their original location to what had become known as the Sutherland Block. By 1919 the Merchant Bank built their own building next to Sutherland and in 1921 merged with the Bank of Montreal. 

In 1925 the Sutherland Block was sold and converted into the Leduc Hotel. The upper floor hosted guests along with the manager and his family. Downstairs was a very popular coffee shop and a pub. Co-owner John Megley was a strong supporter of the Legion and although the pub was closed until noon John would provide free beer, mostly to Legionnaires, beginning at noon for the next two hours on Remembrance Day. Naturally many patrons headed for the hotel immediately after the conclusion of the Remembrance Day ceremonies. 

Just before noon an early arrival knocked on the pub’s locked door and heard beverage room employee, Steve Fennick, yell out “we’ll be open in three minutes!” Moments later the hotel blew up! There would be two explosions the first blew out the walls of the hotel and collapsed the second floor onto the first. The second included a horrific fire that consumed many of the victims that had survived the initial explosion. The sound of the explosion was heard over 27 kilometers away and ten people lost their lives with another 16 hospitalized. 

Leduc Hotel after the explosion Nov 11, 1950

 

It is believed that Orysia Megley, the 12-year old daughter of Megley’s, had come downstairs and headed for the basement for some fruit for lunch. Did the opening and closing the door cause a draft in the coal furnace and set off the gas, or did the turning on the electric light switch cause the explosion? No one knows. What is known is that the gas had seeped into the basement and a spark had set it off.

Many of the approaching customers were blown to the ground and when they attempted to rescue the survivors of the initial blast were turned away by the roaring flames that followed a second blast.  

At the time of the explosion the hotel had 40 people either upstairs or in the coffee shop along with Steve Fennick and Emil Abal who were getting the pub ready for the approaching crowd. 

Those that survived had some remarkable stories of luck or faith. Bob Doyle was a 27-year-old oil worker from Winnipeg who had already walked away from two plane crashes during World War II. This time he awoke while being hurled through the air and clear of the hotel mattress and all. 

Another oil worker, Carl Moore, after working all night, had planned to return to the hotel at eight that morning, but instead decided to go hunting. He was returning when the hotel exploded. An unnamed survivor had been standing by the door leading to upstairs when the blast occurred. The door blew out and he was blown up and out by the draft caused by the explosion ending upstairs with only a bump on his nose when he hit a timber on the way up!

John Megley’s oldest daughter, Nadia, was hospitalized but survived the experience. 

Mrs. Norman Miller a waitress in the coffee shop wasn’t as lucky. She survived the initial blast but was pinned by a dish cabinet. Her luck ran out when the second blast was accompanied by an intense fire that consumed the building. She would be one of the ten that perished that day. Positive identification of victims was difficult and it took three months to identify the last victim of the disaster.

News of the explosion was reported in newspapers as far away as Australia and Singapore. 

How could such a tragedy occur in a rapidly growing community of 2000? Leduc has always been known for being progressive and in 1950 it had been one of the first communities to approve being served with natural gas.

A company was formed called the Leduc Utilities Ltd and the company hired Mr. Wilfred J Gray as the chief engineer. Mr. Gray had recently retired from the Canadian Western Natural Gas Company with 26 years of service. He developed the plans for a plant to carry the gas from Devon to Leduc and had approved the contract with Wilson & Wilson to install the Leduc system. Wilson & Wilson had run a 2 inch line into the Leduc Hotel but had failed to cap the line. The day of the test gas had run into the hotel’s basement and because the gas was odorless nobody noticed until Orysia open the basement door! 

Wilfred J Gray was charged with ten counts of manslaughter and two counts of criminal neglect. After a trial of several months Gray was acquitted. However, a survivor of the explosion Mr. Neil MacDonald and the widow of Bill Brohman successful sued the company and Gray in a civil action.

John Megley bought into the New Waldorf Hotel and by late spring of 1951 he was greeting customers trying to forget the loss of his daughter and the day the Leduc Hotel disappeared.

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