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Remember When the Powder Mills Exploded

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News, March 5, 1933

Remember When the Powder Mills Exploded?

By Howard Burba


     In EARLY DAYS before science had learned as much about explosives as it knows today, the willow tree played a prominent part in the manufacture of gunpowder.  And that is the answer to your query as to why the banks of the Little Miami river in the vicinity of Goes Station and Kings Mills have for long years been dotted with powder plants.

     In the manufacture of gunpowder such ingredients as saltpeter and soda ash and charcoal were necessary.  Securing the latter was not difficult, since the banks of most every stream abounded with willow trees, from which could be produced the special grade and quality of charcoal held necessary to the manufacture of explosives.  Nature, for some unaccountable reason, had been especially lavish in providing willow trees along the banks of the Little Miami.  Today they border that stream in vast numbers, yet nothing to be compared with those years when the powder mills were first established, and when the utilization of this sort of wood for charcoal was inaugurated.  Up to the time the powder mills came, hundreds of thousands of willow trees, and many of them hundreds of years old, lined the banks of the stream for miles.

     Shortly after the Civil War the making of gunpowder became quite an industry on the Little Miami.  A mill was established at Goes station, between Xenia and Yellow springs, and on the line of the old Mad River and Lake Erie railroad.  It prospered from the very start, and ere a few years had passed quite a settlement had sprung up there.  Much like the coal mining industry of later days, the company operating the powder plant also operated the town.  Homes, all identical in size and architecture, company built and company owned, all painted the same color, arose along both sides of the railroad tracks.  A “company store” was a necessary part of the layout, and it, too, shouted its ownership through the same shade of paint.

     As the mills expanded their capacity for producing gunpowder, additional workmen were required.  While it was considered a dangerous occupation, the company paid good wages, and there was no difficulty in securing labor.  That condition obtained until one day an employe who had overlooked the necessity for working in his sock feet or wearing a pair of overshoes was blown to bits for his negligence.  A nail in his shoe heel, coming in contact with a nail in the floor of a powder magazine, flashed a spark that touched off the powder around which he was working.  It was the first of a long series of explosions at the Goes Station powder mills.  Later they became of such frequency as to cause little comment, unless they were especially violent.

     Twenty-five years ago I sat fishing on the banks of the Little Miami within a few yards of the powder mills.  I heard a conversation nearby and looked up to find my companion talking to an employe of the mills who had strolled over to pass a few leisure moments.

     “I want to tell you good-bye before you start back to the mill,” said my companion to him.

     “Why so? asked the powder-maker, a perfect stranger to both of us.

     “Twenty years ago,” explained my fishing companion, “I had a cousin working over there when one of those buildings went up.  We didn’t find enough of him to make a bait for a crawfish.  So I thought it might be appropriate to tell you good-bye when you start back to work.”

     But despite the occasional explosion, sometimes with the attendant loss of a single life, most often with only the destruction of one of the many small magazines, life moved on in its accustomed way in the little settlement of Goes Station until a new week was ushered in on March 1, 1886.

     There was a feeling of nearby spring in the air, and thoughts turned to gardening.  An occasional freight train rumbled through on the little branch railroad connecting Springfield and Xenia, a road that has helped make history in the state since it was the first one to connect Cincinnati with Lake Erie.  It was wash-day—being Monday—and housewives were busily engaged in getting the freshly scrubbed family linen to its place on the long clotheslines spanning their lawns.

     Employes at the powder mills had been on duty almost three hours when, without an instant’s warning, and as swiftly as lightning strikes from the sky, there was a roar as though the earth itself had been split asunder.  Wherever they were standing, whether at the grinding machines, in the storage houses or even idling along the streets, men felt the earth give beneath their feet and then, seemingly, to rise as though in the throes of a violent earthquake.  Some were thrown against nearby obstacles; others were swept from their feet and hurled to the ground.  The “dry house” had exploded.

     The building, a frame structure 22x60 feet, was converted into splinters and the machinery it housed torn asunder, fragments of steel being hurled through the air as so much shrapnel.  Two thousand, five hundred kegs of powder, each weighing 25 pounds—nearly thirty tons—had been instantaneously discharged.  It is not difficult to understand why not a vestige of the building in which it was stored remained within a space of sixty seconds following the blast.  The only thing to indicate where the “dry house” once stood was a freshly torn hole in the earth, larger than the original foundation and varying in depth from six to ten feet.

     Debris fairly rained from the sky.  Splintered wood, pieces of metal, shingles and bricks came down on the single street in the settlement, and showered the roofs of the company-owned cottages.  In the immediate vicinity of the “dry house,” however, one could not have salvaged enough wood to start a fire.  Of the boiler room that adjoined it, not a brick could be found.  A few of the stones of the foundation remained intact, one of them, weighing nearly 60 pounds, being later recovered three quarters of a mile away.  Several large shade trees near the building were literally torn up by the roots, while others nearby were broken or twisted off near their base; still others, some fully 50 yards away, were stripped of their branches by the force of the explosion.

     Some distance from the “dry house” at the time stood a horse, hitched to the little car used for transporting powder from the finishing mill to the ill-fated structure.  The horse was blown a distance of 150 feet; the little car was found lying fully twice this distance away and in an opposite direction.  Houses nearest the scene were damaged, and not an unbroken pane of glass remained in any of them.  A small frame building on a hill fully a half-mile distant, and occupied by a widow woman and her four children, was wrecked, window sash and doors being blown out by the concussion.  The woman occupant suffered a broken arm when she was thrown against the wall.

     One side of the bridge across the Little Miami river—nearly a mile away—collapsed and tumbled into the water below, and shocks of corn in fields an equal distance removed from the scene of the explosion were tossed about as though a cyclone had swept through the valley.

     While the shock was keenly felt at Springfield, a dozen miles away, and at Dayton, some 14 miles distant, it was particularly noticeable in Xenia, five miles removed.  Glass in windows and doors there were shattered, houses trembled.  Fearing they were being visited by an earthquake, pupils in the public school buildings became panic-stricken and fled in confusion to the schoolyards.  Even in Dayton, far removed from the tragedy, it was necessary for teachers in a school building on Huffman av. to quiet the alarmed pupils and herd them back into their seats.  The same experience was reported by teachers in the schools at Miamisburg and Franklin.  At Cedarville and Yellow Springs the shock was so severe as to frighten farm animals of every description.  In fact, the earth tremor was felt as far distant as Columbus and Cincinnati.

     Long before details of the explosion had been given to the outside world newspaper offices in Springfield, Dayton and Cincinnati were being besieged with inquiries regarding “the earthquake.”  This dispatch for instance, was sent a Cincinnati paper from Aberdeen down on the Ohio river, before news of the blast had been sent out:

     “Aberdeen, O., March 1.—A slight shock of earthquake passed here at 10:15 a. m. today.  No one is known to have been injured, and so far no property damage has been recorded.”

     Immediately following the explosion a cloud of thick, dark smoke hung over the little valley in which the powder plant was located.  For a full half-hour the cloud held its position, gradually growing whiter and whiter and changing in shape until it became merged with the clouds of the sky.

     Work of checking over the list of employes started as soon as the numbed and frightened populace could recover from the shock.  As names were called the men lined up, most of them nursing bruises or cuts received from the flying debris.  When the roll had been completed three vacancies were noted in their ranks.  But there was not even the tiniest fragment of clothing of any one of the three to indicate that they were actual victims of the tragedy.  They had literally been blown to atoms.  The dead were Christy McCann, aged 50; Henry Franklin, aged 40, and Michael Haney.  Three widows and eight orphaned children went back to saddened homes to be comforted in their bereavement by sympathizing neighbors.

     A careful search was started in the afternoon, and small fragments of the bodies of the explosion victims were found, mostly at a distance of 200 yards from the scene of the catastrophe. Only small portions of each victim were recovered, but sufficient to establish identity in each instance.  The fragments, consisting of parts of legs and arms, were placed in three boxed and buried in separate graves.

     Two of the victims, Franklin and Haney, had arrived at the “dry mill” with the little horse-drawn car and a load of powder but a few minutes before the explosion.  They were engaged in storing it inside the building when the boiler used in generating steam for drying the powder let go.  It was the explosion of the steam boiler which caused the “dry house” to go up, the two blasts being sufficiently far apart to be recalled by the employes following the accident.  All testified before the coroner of Greene co. at the inquest held over the three victims that they heard a slight explosion and a “split second” later felt the tremendous upheaval occasioned by the blast in the “dry house.”

     There was no more work done at the Miami Powder Co.’s plant that day.  In fact, the company found it difficult for a considerable time following the explosion to get enough men to run their machines.  Employes who escaped the explosion deserted their jobs, only a few of the older and more daring ones remaining.  There were about 50 men on the company pay roll at the time of the tragedy.

     Not all the employes at the powder mill were faint of heart however.  For instance, there was Johnny Roads.  For 30 years his steady hand and eye directed the powerful burrs through which passed the charcoal to be ground into powder particles.  He was there in 1886, and left his post only enough to help gather up the remnants of torn and mutilated bodies that represented former co-workers.  Johnny Roads can tell you that at least one employe never wavered following that disastrous explosion.

     He’s still living, and hale and hearty at the age of 94 years and six months.  Lived during most of his younger years at Pleasant and Center sts. in Springfield, and is now spending the sundown of a long and active life in a little cottage at the outskirts of Dayton, in the suburb known as Belmont.  If you’ll glance over that war record hanging on the wall of his living room, presented him by Uncle Sam, you’ll understand why a powder mill explosion never bluffed him.  That record shows that he marched more than 3000 miles with Sherman—and that he missed only one of the 33 battles in which Sherman’s forces participated.  Johnny Roads fought in 32 out of the 33 engagements and the only thing that caused him to miss the single one recorded was because they wouldn’t let him out of the hospital that day.  With plenty of hair left, good eyesight, the same teeth he started in life with and a memory that a lot of younger citizens might well wish for, Johnny Roads still gets a thrill out of recalling the old powder mill explosion of which I write.

     Automobiles were unknown in that day and trains on the little branch road through Goes Station were few and far between.  There were plenty of horse-drawn vehicles to be had, however, and within a few hours following the blast the highways leading to the scene were congested with traffic, every vehicle headed in the same direction.  Crowds from Springfield, Dayton and Xenia milled about the scene and formed a vast searching party, each attempting to outdo the other in finding some fragment of the explosion that could be preserved as a souvenir.  There had never been anything like it in the way of an explosion in the history of Goes Station, though minor explosions in smaller structures than the “dry house” had occurred from time to time.

     At the little settlement of Kings Mills, located but a few miles farther down the river than Goes, a still larger powder plant was in operation at the time the latter was established.  It was known as “King’s Great Western Powder Works.”  Nearby was a subsidiary known as The Peters Cartridge Co.  From the powder made in the King mills the Peters company loaded their revolver cartridges and shotgun shells, producing a commodity that even to this day enjoys a nation-wide reputation.

     Kings Mills differed little from Goes Station in the matter of tragedies and only four years following the explosion at the latter place Kings Mills flashed on the front page with an explosion that scores of local citizens keenly felt and just as keenly remember.

     It was on July 15, 1890, that a freight train halted at Kings Mills to pick up a couple of cars loaded with giant blasting powder.  The engineer “cut” his train and proceeded to draw the cars from the switch alongside the mills and place them in his “string.”  He made what, in railroad parlance, is known as a “running switch,” having located a new brakeman by the name of William Franey of Waynesville on the “cut” of cars to operate the brakes.  For some reason that has never been explained, the brakes on the cars making up the “cut” refused to hold when Franey applied them and they struck the cars loaded with powder a mighty thud.

     Instantly there was an explosion that bid fair to burst the eardrums of every one in the immediate vicinity.  A second later another and more deafening report rang out.  There was the noise of debris being showered from the sky—a scene similar to that at Goes Station four years before.  But this time fire quickly followed the concussions.

     Scarcely before the giant smoke screen had lifted, flames were roaring in a half-dozen buildings.  Before the day had ended the railroad station, the freight house, two office buildings of the Peters Cartridge Co., the shell factory, the cartridge loading plant, a large warehouse and six dwelling houses were in ashes.  Yet fate was kind, a warehouse containing 25,000 kegs of giant powder was left untouched.  Not a spark reached it.

     Not a vestige of the brakeman could be found following the explosion and the freight cars on which he was riding at the time had disappeared as completely as if the earth had opened up and swallowed them. A call was sent to Cincinnati for fire fighters, doctors, and nurses, and pending the arrival of a special train carrying this aid, the smoke-begrimed, nerve-wracked citizens of Kings Mills began ministering to the suffering all about them.

      Fifty girls were at work in the cartridge loading plant.  They saw the walls of the building, split asunder by the concussion, start to waver.  All but 20 of them reached points of safety in the open.  Cuts and bruises and broken bones made up the injuries of the less fortunate.

     When the toll could be taken of the dead it was found that 12 had perished.  The name of William Franey, ill-fated brakeman headed the list, followed by those of Albert Williams, a cartridge maker; Samuel Stevenson and Harry Reynolds, teamsters; Mrs. James Moss and her 3-year old child; Mrs. Frederick Kelly, wife of the foreman of the plant, and her 4-year old son; a Mrs. Collins and child; the infant of a Mrs. Eliston, and a rag-picker, whose identity was never discovered.

     Kings Mills buried its dead, then mutely turned its face to the scene of destruction.  Despair was on all sides.  But the powder maker of earlier days was strong of heart.  He had to be brave to engage in such an occupation.  So, like his brothers farther up the Little Miami river, he brushed away his tears, grasped his dinner bucket and went back to the mills, wondering, along with the rest of the residents of this part of Ohio, just how long it would be before a similar event broke the routine of this life.