Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Allegheny Arsenal Explosion: A Brief Overview

Photo: Front gate at Allegheny Arsenal. From The Collections of the Pennsylvania Department, at Carnegie Library, Frank Bingaman Collection. Found at

First, I would like to say many thanks to Allan Becer from Carnegie Mellon University, an authority on the subject and with whom I have been in touch since writing my original paper, from which most of the following is. He has been a great help in sending me information, including his own work.
At present, the Allegheny Arsenal explosion is the one of which I have the most information, perhaps because it is the best known of wartime civilian disasters.

The Allegheny Arsenal, established in 1814, was in Lawrenceville(now part of the City of Pittsburgh) on the east bank of the Allegheny River. A wide variety of military accoutrements and tools were made and stored there, as well as smaller artillery pieces, shells, cartridges, and gun carriages. The Arsenal’s location was significant because it was near the headwaters of the Ohio River, which gave quick access to troops headed to the western frontiers. As of 1858, it was one of 23 arsenals in the country, with less than 50 officers to attend to them.
In charge of the Allegheny Arsenal was Colonel John Symington, who was to be blamed for the disaster that took place in 1862. The fact that one of his sons joined the Confederate army, his daughter displayed Southern sympathies, and the Arsenal obeyed orders to continue shipping its supplies to the South did not help him.
Almost as soon as the first shots at Fort Sumter were fired, the Allegheny Arsenal became a busy place as orders for arms came in, particularly from the Pennsylvania State Militia. As with the other arsenals in the country, manufacturing was increased, and scores of civilians were hired. One of the busiest facilities at the Arsenal was the main laboratory – one of four - which was divided into fourteen rooms with a series of covered porches on one side. The magazines were up the hill from the lab. It was about 60 by 40 feet in size, located near the Greensburg Pike. In eight of the rooms of the lab, 151 girls and 25 boys were employed.
A stone walkway had been built when Symington took command, which connected the main laboratory to other buildings. When it was being constructed, the masons saw that almost every stroke of the hammer drew sparks, due to the flinty nature of the stone being used. This could be dangerous around so much black powder. Symington rejected suggestions to use a softer type of stone because he claimed he was not contracted to do so. He also denied suggestions to cover the walkway with sawdust, sand, or tanbark. When Alexander McBride – Superintendent of the main lab – tried covering it with cinders, Symington reprimanded him for acting without his authority. When asked to give the employees a half-holiday on a Saturday so that the main lab could be scrubbed and flushed in order to get rid of the powder and dust that accumulated in the walls over time, Symington refused.
With so many men and boys away at war, hiring more girls and women at the Arsenal seemed practicable. Also, boys were deemed to spend too much time fondling and admiring implements of war rather than assembling them. Finally, boys were generally more mischievous and careless than girls. Indeed, such work often appealed to women because it was light, patriotic, and an important contribution to the war effort, especially during such a crisis and manpower shortage.
Most of those hired at the Allegheny Arsenal came from Lawrenceville. The number of employees jumped from 308 in April 1861 to 1,189 by January 1862. Young people and women were preferred because they could be paid less, and girls had smaller hands with which to roll cartridges, a lighter touch, and occupied less space due to their smaller frames. Many boys and young men worked in the lab early on, but many of these were dismissed after there were several incidents in which friction matches were found in the cartridge rooms.
In seeking employment at the Arsenal, one had to leave their name, recommendations, and references at the office. Colonel Symington ordered that preference be given to those in most need of work and with good character – particularly widows, “unprotected” girls, and children of widows. Special care was given to the “proper” treatment of women and girls there, and a number of men were dismissed for “improper conduct toward one of the females.” Most young women employed at the lab worked six days a week, twelve hours a day. Most were paid at a piece rate, from fifty cents to $1.10 per day. Each worked was expected to produce a daily minimum, based on one’s individual abilities and past performance. Those unable to meet their quota were subject to dismissal.
Strict safety rules were written out and hung up in each of the labs due to the large amounts of black powder there. For instance, only enough powder was to be delivered to the lab that was necessary for the day’s work. Also, all ammunition made during the day was to be placed in the magazine; nothing was to be left in the lab overnight. Empty boxes were not allowed to accumulate, and those workers who were making cartridges were to be supplied at their tables so that there was minimal need to get up and leave their seats. Also, running and loud conversation were not allowed, and the rooms were to be “properly policed” at least twice a day to make sure these rules were enforced. Loose powder was to be swept out onto the clean piece of ground between the porches and the stone roadway; boys were then to gather up the powder into boxes and dispose of them in the pond.
September 17, 1862 was to be a fateful day for those at the Allegheny Arsenal. It was payday, and workers stood in line in small groups waiting to be paid. There was an urgent need for cartridges because General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia had crossed the Potomac into Maryland, and General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson had just captured Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. As it had been for some weeks, the weather had been very warm and heavy. No rain had fallen for more than a month, which made for a very dry atmosphere and contributed to a more volatile work environment.
At around 1 o’clock, J.R. Frick, a wagon driver, had just received an order for ten barrels of powder to be delivered to the main lab. Robert Smith, who assisted Frick, put three of the barrels on Porch #1 outside of the lab. After Frick delivered the rest of the powder to the other porches, Smith had him turn around to pick up some empty boxes at Porch #1. It was then, at about 2 o’clock, that Frick remembered Smith jumping up onto one of the barrels.
At that same moment, John Ryder – who was packing cartridges in a room next to the porch – looked out through the doorway and saw a “flash of powder.” Heading toward the door, Ryder was forced back by the explosion of barrels on the porch. Frick was thrown from his wagon, Smith was blown apart, and the badly burned horses ran away. About 300 girls and boys working in the storehouse below the lab were in a panic, and many tried to rush toward the stairs and out second-story windows in an effort to escape. Lieutenant John Edie, who had been in Colonel Symington’s office, rushed toward the lab, and tried to calm the workers in the storehouse until ladders could be brought; he feared further injury would occur otherwise. Symington and Second Lieutenant Jasper Myers, who was in charge of the lab, soon joined him. Myers inspected the magazine. When he determined that it could be saved, he sent for more men to help with the rescue. Just as the situation in the storehouse was put under control, a second explosion occurred.
This second explosion set the building on fire. Workers had tried to flee at the first sounds of the explosion, but became trapped under flaming walls and roofs which fell upon them. At first, many people at the scene feared that the explosions were an act of sabotage committed by the Confederates as part of a grand scheme to invade the North – especially since they were now in Maryland.
A worker, Mary Jane Black, remembered seeing two girls running from the building:
“They were on fire; their faces were burning and blood running from them;
I pulled the clothes off one of them; while I was doing this, the other ran up
and begged me to cover her. I did not succeed in saving either one.”
As he neared the building, Colonel Symington heard a third explosion. The series of explosions could be heard two miles away in Pittsburgh. Symington and Edie had a group of workers who were running down the hill drag the Arsenal’s fire engine up to the pond. Lieutenant Edie organized a line of men to bring buckets of water from the pond to the lab, which had by this time collapsed into burning rubble.
After the fire had been put out, members of the assembled crowd - which included many parents and loved ones of the workers - came forward to remove the bodies and place them on boards for identification. Some families had lost more than one member; several pairs of sisters had died together as well as a father and his daughter. Pieces of limbs were also found; a hand was identified by a ring on one of its fingers, and a leg was identified by its shoe. A piece of a skull was found as well as scattered intestines and flesh hanging from bones. The Pittsburgh Post reported a woman who was thrown up against a wall, with an entire cartridge embedded in her body. Some bodies were found clinging to each other in an effort to save themselves from the flames. The ashes were raked for remains, and then the process of identification began.
Out of the 186 workers in the main lab, 78 were killed according to the final tally – 70 of them were women and girls, the rest being men and boys. Among them was Kate McBride, daughter of lab superintendant Alexander McBride, who tried to douse with water those girls who were still alive. It was later reported that four or five of the victims had been taken to nearby homes, where they soon died.
The news stunned the Pittsburgh area. The local press gave it more coverage than news from the front the next day, September 18. The Post provided a list of the known victims. The explosion had taken place the same day as the battle of Antietam, near Sharpsburg, MD. In the national press, however, news of the battle dwarfed that of the explosion.
That day, Symington reported the incident to the Ordnance Department. He believed that the explosion had been caused by powder that had leaked from one of the barrels that had been placed on the porch:
“The whole proceeds of the day was consequently exploded amounting to
about 125,000 of .71 and .54 in. small arm cartridges, and 175 rounds of field
ammunition assorted for 12 pdr., and 10 pdr. Parrot guns. There were three
explosions: the first as stated of the powder being delivered from the wagon,
when a large number employed in the adjoining rooms escaped – two others
followed in different portions of the building at short intervals, causing the
roof and walls to fall in flames over those who could not escape.”
That day, a committee in Lawrenceville was to act in concert with one in Pittsburgh to bury the dead. The United States Government issued plain black coffins for the interment of those remains which were unidentified – the only sort of government compensation they or their families would receive. They were to be placed in a single grave donated by the nearby Allegheny Cemetery. This was to be the only sort of compensation from the Government. Production was suspended that day at the Arsenal, and stores within the City closed at noon in honor of the dead. At 3 P.M., a solemn procession bearing the 39 unidentified bodies was led from the Arsenal to the Cemetery. In attendance were officials from Lawrenceville and Pittsburgh as well as clergymen from various denominations. At the Cemetery, the 39 bodies were placed in a large pit. At the same time, the Catholic victims of the explosion were buried at the adjoining St. Mary’s Cemetery.
Reverend Richard Lea, whose Presbyterian Church was near the Arsenal and who had given the sermon at the funeral, gave another sermon to his congregation on September 28. He reiterated that the explosion had been caused by a either a wagon’s horse’s shoe or the iron of the wheel of the wagon. He extolled some of the positive things that had come from the tragedy, such as the heroic courage that had been displayed by the men who tried to rescue workers; the firemen who had quickly arrived on the scene; physicians were present, despite being tired and hungry; women were also there, ready to nurse; and finally, people from all classes and walks of life were there.
While the funeral was taking place, Symington had issued Post Orders for the clearing away of debris. The hired workers were to haul away the burned wood and ashes and toss them into the river. The workers had to be mindful to salvage any cartridge boxes that could still be used so that work at the Arsenal could be quickly resumed. Useable parts of the lab were to be set aside and accounted for, and destroyed portions rebuilt. Also found among the charred wood were torn clothing, pieces of dinner baskets, exploded shells, melted lead, and steel springs from girls’ hoop skirts.
The next day, Friday September 19, work resumed at the Arsenal while a detail of enlisted men and laborers began clearing away what was left of the laboratory. At the same time, a Coroner’s inquest was held in Lawrenceville in order to determine the cause of death for the victims of the explosions. The hearings began at 10 A.M., with a jury of seven local residents. Colonel Symington was the last witness of the day. He outlined his policies at the Arsenal, adding that “it was contrary to orders to sweep out powder onto the roadway,” and if it had been, it had been done by careless individuals.
While the hearings recessed for the weekend, residents of Lawrenceville gathered to voice their disapproval of Lieutenant Edie and his conduct on the day of the funeral. They accused him of driving people away from the Arsenal as well as using “grossly obscene language” to describe the girls. The citizens passed a resolution calling for his expulsion from both the Arsenal and the community of Lawrenceville. When the hearings resumed the next Monday, Lieutenant Myers defended his fellow officer. When he told the jurors that Edie wished to make a statement on his own behalf, the jury denied him this, believing that such a statement was “altogether out of their province.” The other witnesses consisted mainly of Arsenal officials who contended that the rules in the lab had been strictly followed, and that the day of the explosion, there had been no loose powder on the roadway.
On Saturday September 27, the Coroner’s jury met to begin their deliberations. After two hours, they delivered their verdict: that the explosion had been caused by the neglect of Colonel Symington, Lieutenants Edie and Myers, and Superintendant McBride and his assistant James Thorpe. Symington was furious, blaming the verdict on “notorious outside pressure.”
On October 15, the Court of Inquiry convened at the Arsenal to investigate the circumstances of the explosions as well as the conduct of Colonel Symington. However, proceedings were delayed until the 20th. The Court heard many of the same witnesses who had testified at the Coroner’s Inquest, and many members of the victims’ families were also in attendance. J.R. Frick, the wagon driver, was even more adamant that the first flash of powder came from under his wagon wheel, which had struck powder that had been carelessly swept out onto the roadway. He also testified that he had reported leaky barrels to one of the superintendants several days prior to the explosion, but nothing was done. However, Frick could not remember what he told Superintendant McBride when approached by him the day after the explosion. Ellis McClure, an 18-year-old worker, had testified that the ground under the stones in the roadway had at least six inches thick with powder. Prior to the explosions, however, McBride – whose job it was to inspect each of the rooms of the main lab – had filed a complaint with Messrs. DuPont and Company for faulty barrels.
Other witnesses testified to seeing powder being swept into the roadway. Rachel Dunlap said that “she saw grains of powder swept out of the room at various times.” John Ryan, who had been foreman of Room J and employed in the upper magazine, claimed that sometimes up to a half-pound of powder was swept out onto the roadway, which was always doused with water when discovered. He went on to say that boys from ages 12 to 18 were employed in filling cartridge bags for siege guns in the magazine; they were to wear moccasins in order to prevent sparks. Symington had ordered that men, not boys, were to do this.
After seven days of testimony, the Court reached its verdict. They ruled that the cause of the explosion could not be ascertained, but it possibly may have been caused when Smith jumped up on one of the barrels, which likely had powder on the head. Another possibility is that a spark from one of the horses’ shoes caused it. The exact cause may never be known with certainty, but overall negligence and inexperience clearly contributed to it.
The Court also ruled that Symington had taken every precaution and care in running the Arsenal as safely as possible. Symington was relieved of his command on November 1 by the Chief of Ordnance, Major James W. Ripley, and replaced by Major Robert Henry Kirkwood Whitely. Symington took sick leave and retired the next year. He died in Hartford County, Maryland on April 4, 1864, a broken man.
The Arsenal continued to make news during the war. The Pittsburgh Post reported in December 1864 that “A wholesale larceny of bullets . . . and a large quantity of ammunition [had been] sold” by boys who were employed at the Arsenal. The Post reported that Lawrenceville widow Margaret O’Connor had received the stolen ammunition and melted it down. She, with eight boys, was subsequently arrested.
In 1928, members of the Sons of Union Veterans and its Ladies’ Auxiliary dedicated a new monument in Allegheny Cemetery. The new monument had 78 names, which was 41 more than the original obelisk erected in 1863; the latter of which was funded by local donations. At the height of its operation, the Arsenal had included about twenty buildings, but little of it remains today. Two warehouses are used by the Allegheny Health Department as garages. Another building is an office for a trucking company. The site of the explosions is now a ball field at Arsenal Park behind Arsenal Middle School. The magazine, which has a plaque commemorating those lost in the explosion, is now a park restroom.

Works Cited:
Primary Sources:
“A Direful Calamity,” Pittsburgh Daily Post, 18 September 1862.

“The Arsenal Catastrophe.” Pittsburgh Daily Post, 20 September 1862.

“The Catastrophe at the Arsenal.” Pittsburgh Daily Post, 19 September 1862.

Secondary Sources:
Becer, Alan. “An Appalling Disaster: The Allegheny Arsenal and the Explosion of
1862.” Westmoreland History. Fall 1999, 41-59.

Carnprobst, John, ed. “’Ye Know Not What Hour Your Lord Doth Come:’ Tragedy at the U.S. Allegheny Arsenal.” Blue and Gray Magazine. August-September 1985, 28-43.

Fox, Arthur B. Pittsburgh During the American Civil War, 1860-1865. Chicora, PA: Mechling Bookbinding, 2002.

Harper, Frank C. Pittsburgh of Today, It’s Resources and People, Volume 1. New York: The American Historical Society Incorporated, 1931.

Wudarczyk, James. “Men and Material.” America’s Civil War 20, no. 2 (May 2007): 23-25. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed 2 October 2008).

---. Pittsburgh’s Forgotten Allegheny Arsenal. Apollo, PA: Closson Press, 1999.

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