The Vanceboro railroad bridge, as seen in this circa 1910 photo.

There are several famous examples of German spies infiltrating Maine during World War II — from stories of German U-boats plying the Gulf of Maine, to a well-known 1944 incident involving a Hancock Boy Scout and two Nazi spies.

But 108 years ago this month, another German spy made his way into the United States during World War I and caused damage — albeit minor — to infrastructure in the remote Washington County border town of Vanceboro.

The February 1915 Vanceboro railroad bridge bombing didn’t kill or injure anyone, and only caused relatively minor damage to the structure that carried trains over the St. Croix River. The trains were jointly operated by Maine Central Railroad and Canadian Pacific Railway.

The bridge still stands in 2023 as a reminder of one of many war-related incidents that preceded the country’s eventual entry into World War I, which the U.S. remained officially neutral in until April 1917.

Canada, already a combatant in the war, was prohibited from carrying troops or war goods via train through the United States. But Germany had become increasingly concerned that British ally Japan would send troops across the Pacific and through Canada to the Western Front in Europe. The Germans hatched a plan, led by spymaster Franz von Papen, to disrupt Canadian rail operations.

Captain Franz von Papen

Von Papen targeted the Vanceboro rail bridge, which was then a heavily used part of the U.S.-Canada railway infrastructure. Vanceboro had more than five times the population it does today, topping out at around 600 throughout the first part of the 20th century. Today, Vanceboro has approximately 100 residents.

In order to cause disruption to transport lines, Von Papen enlisted the help of Werner Horn, a zealous supporter of Germany, convincing him he would be seen as a hero if he planted a bomb on the bridge. Horn reportedly was paid $700 — equivalent to about $18,000 in 2023.

On Jan. 29, 1915, Horn, carrying a suitcase full of dynamite, took a train from New York City all the way to the end of the U.S. line in Vanceboro, with transfers in Boston and Portland. He stayed at a hotel in Vanceboro, and told local officials he was a Danish farmer looking to buy land in the area. He hid the explosives-filled suitcase in a wood pile.

Three days later, on a frigid February night, Horn retrieved the suitcase and attempted to position it on the Canadian side of the bridge. Horn was reportedly twice stymied by trains passing through, and could not place the suitcase and light the fuse until after 1 a.m. on Feb. 2, managing to race back to the hotel in three minutes before it blew up at 1:10 a.m.

The blast shattered windows in nearby homes, but only bent some iron beams on the bridge. Horn and Von Papen’s plan was a failure — the bridge was only out of use for a few days.

In a 1941 article recalling the incident, the BDN wrote that it was incredible that the Germans “would entrust so delicate a mission to an awkward goof who did no great harm and was promptly caught.”

Horn quickly changed out of his street clothes at the hotel and into a German army uniform, to avoid being arrested as a spy — an executable offense. The following morning, the hotel owner told railroad operators that he strongly suspected Horn was involved with the explosion, and local sheriffs detained him.

Until he could be extradited to Canada, where the majority of the bridge damage occurred, Horn was only charged in Maine with criminal mischief for breaking windows in Vanceboro. Horn took the train back to Bangor on Feb. 5 before heading to Machias to serve a 30-day jail sentence, according to a 2015 BDN story

He reportedly had a meal of clam chowder, corned beef, spaghetti and raspberry pie at the Penobscot Exchange Hotel, and told reporters that he was a soldier, not a spy, and that he tried to blow up the bridge for “the good of the Fatherland.”

After his Maine jail sentence, Horn was tried before a federal grand jury in Boston for transporting explosives on a train, and was sentenced to 18 months in prison. After being released in 1919, he was finally extradited to Canada, where he was found guilty and sentenced to 10 more years in prison. In 1921, he was found to be insane and was deported to Germany, though according to a CBC story in 2015, he was actually suffering from late-stage syphilis.

The Vanceboro railroad bridge stands today, although there’s much less rail traffic than there was 100 years ago. What trains use the bridge are operated by New Brunswick Railway Company Limited, owned by J.B. Irving Limited.

There’s no monument to this little-known incident in Vanceboro, since no one was killed or injured and the structural damage was minor.

But if you find yourself in this quiet corner of Maine, you can try to picture a different era, when railroads were the lifeblood of Maine’s economy — so much so that a foreign power would attempt an act of war to stop them.

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Emily Burnham

Emily Burnham is a Maine native and proud Bangorian, covering business, the arts, restaurants and the culture and history of the Bangor region.