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FALLEN WORKERS: Cofferdam collapse devastates Bisson family

 Melanie Battell, special to Postmedia Network

Achille and Anna-Marie Bisson, July 13, 1920. (Photo courtesy Nicole Howe, through Wilfrid and Marie Paradis)

Achille and Anna-Marie Bisson, July 13, 1920. (Photo courtesy Nicole Howe, through Wilfrid and Marie Paradis)

The most serious accident on the southern section of the Welland Ship Canal construction occurred when a cofferdam collapsed on Dec. 10, 1927.

The work was in connection with the east abutment preparations for the Main Street Lift Bridge in Welland. Achille Bisson and Henry Nealis were crushed and drowned, while a third worker, Robert Lethbridge, succumbed to his injuries 10 days later. Three other men were seriously injured but survived.

Bisson left behind his wife Anna-Marie who was in poor health and expecting their seventh child. Their six children at home were aged six and under.

Bisson was the eldest of eight children born to Théodore and Philomène (Lehoux) Bisson in the parish of St-Coeur-de-Marie, Megantic, Que. He married Anna-Marie Cyr on July 13, 1920, and their first child was born in April of the following year. His father, Théodore, 46, died in the same month, leaving Bisson’s mother a widow with six children still at home, the youngest aged four.

During the First World War, Empire Cotton Mills in Welland faced a serious shortage of skilled textile workers. Company officials travelled to Quebec to persuade French-speaking workers to move to Welland. Some 20 families came initially, settling mainly in the area of Empire, Cady, Cosy and Duncan streets, a neighbourhood that came to be known as Frenchtown. When the archbishop of Toronto arranged for a francophone priest to be sent to Welland, and a building was purchased to serve as a place of worship, the news of a French-speaking parish spread quickly in Quebec and more Quebecois settled in Welland.

In the fall of 1925, Bisson and his wife arrived with their growing family of five children, along with his widowed mother Philomène and his brothers and sisters. “The whole gang,” as a relative later described them, had moved to Welland. Achille and Anna-Marie’s sixth child was born in Welland on March 28, 1927. In 1927, most of the family lived at 312 Burgar St., not far from the centre of town, while his brothers Joseph and Adelard lived at 31 Cady St. Achille’s younger brothers — Aurèle, Joseph and Adelard — worked for the cotton mill, whereas he found work as a general labourer on the canal.

Maguire, Cameron & Phin had the contract to build the east and west abutments for Bridge No. 13 at Main Street. Bisson was a dependable worker and had already been employed by the company for two years.

A crib had accidentally sunk and so a timber cofferdam was constructed around it in order that the water could be pumped out of the structure and the crib raised. Workers started pumping out the water on the morning of Saturday, Dec. 10. All seemed to be going as planned. Bisson’s responsibility was to place the pumps inside the cofferdam. By late afternoon they had pumped out about 5.5 metres of water. Cables attached to steam-powered derricks held the crib steady as it rose.

Bisson was working near the bottom of the structure when about 4:30 p.m. the cofferdam suddenly collapsed. One of the workers later said that the men were trapped in the water by the considerable amount of floating timbers and debris.

Dr. S. Nixon Davis was on the scene when Bisson was pulled out after a short time. The doctor had the worker’s lifeless body removed to the boiler room of one of the derricks where he and another doctor, Dr. Wilfrid F. Warner, attempted artificial respiration for almost an hour. A pulmotor had also been borrowed from Union Carbide, but all efforts to resuscitate the victim were unsuccessful. Bisson was declared dead by drowning, and his body removed by hearse to J.J. Patterson and Sons funeral home on East Main Street.

Help for Bisson’s wife and the six young children began almost immediately. Rev. Fr. Rosario Tanguay, abbey of the French parish of the Sacred Heart (Paroisse du Sacré-Coeur), took up a collection among his parishioners and raised $57.20, with an appeal for further donations from those outside the church. Thomas Forhan, the manager of the Capitol Theatre on East Main Street, organized a special program of sacred films and several local singers for the following Sunday evening, with the proceeds from “a silver collection” going to the bereaved family.

Bisson’s funeral service was held on Wednesday morning, Dec. 14. Fr. Tanguay presided at the service held at Sacred Heart church, and Bisson was interred at Holy Cross Cemetery.

The day following the funeral, a coroner’s jury returned a verdict of accidental death.

Five months after the terrible accident, Bisson’s widow gave birth to the couple’s seventh child. In 1929, she returned to Robertsonville, Que., where her family (Cyr) lived. She remarried, to Achille Paradis, on June 17, 1931, and had nine more children. Anna-Marie died in 1971 in Vermont at the age of 72.

The troublesome crib was finally raised in the summer of 1928 to complete the east abutment for the Main Street lift bridge. Because they could only work on the bridge deck in the off season for shipping, it would take another two years (1930) until the towers and deck of the structure were entirely finished.

— This article is part of a series remembering the men whose lives were lost in the construction of the Welland Ship Canal. The Welland Canal Fallen Workers Memorial Task Force is a volunteer group established to design, finance, and build a memorial to recognize workers who were killed during construction of the Welland Ship Canal. For more information about the memorial, or to contribute to the project, visit www.stcatharines.ca/CanalWorkersMemorial.

Profile No. 80

Joseph (Achille) Théodore Bisson, 29

Born: March 12, 1898 (St-Coeur-de-Marie/Sacré-Coeur-de-Marie, Megantic, Que.)

Died: Dec. 10, 1927 (Section 7, Bridge No. 13, Welland)

Cause of death: crushed and drowned by collapse of cofferdam

Occupation: labourer, Maguire, Cameron & Phin