Blown! The Bridge, The Spy, and “The War To End All Wars”

Posted by on June 28, 2008

Well, I’m back.  This summer is shaping up to be a busy one, probably your summer is also.  It seems there is never enough time to finish all that needs to be done and my poor blog is suffering.  Thank you dear reader for hanging in there and continuing to stop by.  I have so many great posts, but so little time!  Yikes!

In any event, on with today’s post!


While I’ve posted in the past about the espionage that went on in World War II, especially here in America, what sometimes goes unmentioned is the massive amount of spying that went on in the “War To End All Wars”.  I’m not sure if it’s the passage of time that seemingly downplays this historical fact, but I find it quite interesting.

Now we have all heard about the Zimmerman Telegram, and it is probably the best known espionage instance in World War I.


But what about the German spy who tried (and almost succeeded) in blowing up the Saint Croix-Vanceboro Bridge for $700!  That one I had never heard about, but it is facinating AND close to home!  Here’s the backstory……

He was tall, over six feet, and had been a manager of a coffee plantation in South America before the war. Werner Horn had also served in the German military, so finding out about the conflict which had taken off in Europe, he was anxious to get home.

He ended up in New York in his journey, and although the sources I have read encompass many different viewpoints, it is generally agreed he was contacted by Von Papen, the German military officer, who was currently serving in the German embassy staff in the United States.  What we now know about Von Papen was that he was actively recruiting spies and saboteurs to be used in the states.

Werner was no different and he was sent on assignment, happy to be helping his country in some way.

So what was the plan?

Blow the bridge!

The railroad bridge located between Canada and the United States in 1915 connected the cities of Vanceboro and St. Croix, with freight being the chief product transported by the Canadian Pacific Railway.  Although not the biggest of targets, Von Papen was hoping that the destruction of the bridge would disrupt rail traffic between the two countries.

The city, Vanceboro, was small and the day the stranger arrived in town, he was noticed by many.  In fact, he did nothing to hide his tracks completely or lie low and not attract attention.  It was cold and he took a room in a local hotel, taking the time to figure out the best way to achieve his goals.

Did it work?

In his book, Celebrated Spies and Famous Mysteries of the Great War, George Barton said this:

“…Shortly after one o’clock on the following morning there was a terrific explosion that shook all Vanceboro….”

The end result of this small espionage case was a partial success, but not complete, as the spy we know as Werner Horn did want to achieve his goals, but did not want to hurt anyone in the process.  He waited until the trains had gone for the day, almost getting smashed himself in the wait, and then set a short fuse, hoping that the town would close the rails before anyone could get hurt.

The explosion ripped the bridge, but it still stood and Horn was captured without a shot!

Take a look at the great links below for the complete story of the mission, the man, and the capture!

Have a great day!


Fighting Germany’s Spies (Google Books Full View)

“Black Tom Explosion” ( reference to Werner in story)

(Boston Globe) Story on the area

Celebrated Spies and Famous Mysteries of the Great War

Explosive Times at Vanceboro (great article!)

NY Times Archive Search on Werner Horn

Wikipedia: Werner Horn

Werner and Papen (background on Papen)


(1) Nara

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