Allegheny Arsenal Explosion: Pittsburgh's worst day during the Civil War

78 civilians died in Lawrenceville


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On the warm afternoon of Sept. 17, 1862, as the Civil War's single bloodiest day of fighting raged at the battle of Antietam near Sharpsburg, Md., 156 women worked feverishly at the U.S. Allegheny Arsenal in Lawrenceville to make ammunition for Union troops.

Inside a single-story frame building called the laboratory, women driven by a dire need to earn extra money in an inflated economy bent over tables, using their nimble fingers to roll, pinch, tie and bundle rifle cartridges filled with bullets and black powder. Along with several boys, they turned out 128,000 cartridges a day at the arsenal, which stretched from Penn Avenue to the Allegheny River.

These plucky workers, many of them Irish immigrants and some as young as 14, gossiped or relayed grim family news from the battlefields while the repetitive tasks stiffened their backs and turned their eyes bleary with fatigue. They earned 50 cents to $1.10 per day.

Around 2 p.m., Joseph Frick was delivering wooden barrels of DuPont gunpowder in a horse-drawn wagon up a new stone road. Rachel Dunlap, an employee, saw a spark flash near one of the horse's hooves (clad in iron shoes) and the iron-bound wagon wheel. Then she saw a sheet of flame.

Three thunderous explosions followed, just a few minutes apart, destroying the laboratory and blowing human beings to bits. Panic-stricken workers ran from buildings as the air filled with clouds of smoke and the acrid odors of sulfur and burning flesh. Ultimately, 78 people perished in Pittsburgh's deadliest industrial accident and the Civil War's worst civilian disaster, which happened 150 years ago Monday.

Sixty years later, Mary McCandless McGraw, who worked at the arsenal with her sister, Elizabeth, recalled that horrific day to George T. Fleming of the Pittsburgh Gazette Times:

"There was a great hurry for ammunition on account of the battle of Antietam, then being fought, and orders from Washington were to rush ammunition with all possible speed to the front," said Mrs. McGraw, whose job was to bundle cartridges into packs.

It was pay day, but the women did not break for lunch until 1 p.m. and received their wage statements afterward.

"At 2 o'clock another girl and I were the only persons in Room 13. The other girls were in another building getting their pay and in the yard. Suddenly there was a terrific roar. The earth seemed to split apart," Mrs. McGraw said.

PG graphic: Brief description
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Her co-worker jumped through a window and Mrs. McGraw followed, landing on top of her in the grass. While the two women ran toward Butler Street, they heard a second explosion, then a third.

"Looking around we saw the building we had just left being torn to pieces," Mrs. McGraw said.

Phillip McKenny was burned beyond recognition and identified only by his false teeth. George D. Clouse, superintendent of the cylinder departments, died along with his daughter, Emma, an employee.

Alexander McBride, 44, superintendant of operations, escaped from his office through a window and tried to rescue his 14-year-old daughter Kate. Instead, he watched a flaming ceiling fall on the room where she worked. After making his way to a powder magazine and closing its door to prevent more explosions, he spent the rest of the day helping the wounded. Ministers, neighbors, friends and relatives raced to the scene along with firefighters in horse-drawn wagons. The 34-acre complex became a grim public morgue with bodies laid out on wooden planks.

A reporter for The Pittsburgh Evening Chronicle described hearing "agonizing screams of relatives and friends upon discovering the remains of some loved one whose humble earnings contributed to their comfort. ... There was not a particle of clothing left on a majority of the victims, and mangled and disjointed as they were it was impossible to identify them. The very stockings were torn from their feet, rings from their fingers, and in some instances nothing but a headless trunk remained. Nevertheless, many were identified by their hair, by a scrap of the dress they wore, but the greatest number never can be fully recognized."

Workers had warned managers about the potential for disaster; they believed the new stone road increased the risk for an explosion.

"Workers said the road was too hard and would strike sparks and advocated for softer stone," said Charles McCollester, a retired local labor historian and author of "The Point of Pittsburgh."

The workers' boss, McBride, had complained to superiors that DuPont's insistence on recycling its wooden powder barrels led to loose-fitting lids and spills. Trained as a cooper to make wooden barrels, McBride knew their limitations.

He ordered that wood chips, sawdust and cinders be spread over the stone to prevent sparks. But his superior, Colonel John Symington, insisted that it all be swept away. (Some people disliked Symington because his son joined the Confederate army, and his daughter shocked people at a Lawrenceville church service by wearing a Confederate rosette.)

On the afternoon of Sept. 18, unidentified remains rested in 39 black coffins provided by the U.S. government. The mayors of Pittsburgh and Lawrenceville, along with clergy and council members, watched as each coffin was lowered into a vast, common grave donated by Allegheny Cemetery. Father Gibbs of St. Mary Church wanted to attend but had to preside over the simultaneous burial of 15 explosion victims in nearby St. Mary Cemetery.

McBride, an Irish Catholic immigrant, attended the graveside service at St. Mary Cemetery; a larger crowd attended a Protestant service where an array of ministers spoke, including the Rev. Richard Lea.

Lea, pastor of the Lawrenceville Presbyterian Church, addressed mourners. Three of his congregants died in the explosion. Among them was David Gilliland, whom he called "a man of warm, modest piety." Lea also recalled two sisters, Agnes and Mary Davison.

"Agnes Davison told me, the last time I saw her, that she was for the Union, and that she would no longer be a secessionist from the government of God, and would testify her love to Jesus and the church at our next Communion. Mary Davison, a younger sister, left her home that morning singing a beautiful hymn," the pastor said.

Despite his daughter's death, McBride remained at the arsenal through 1865. In later years, he often reminded people that 1,000 local residents had petitioned the U.S. Congress to appropriate $30,000 to compensate victims of the explosion but the request was denied.

McBride's training as a cooper was valuable, said Juanita Leisch Jensen, author of "Who Wore What: Women's Wear 1861-1865."

"When you re-use a keg, the lid no longer fits as tightly. That's what McBride thought. So when you read that prior to the explosion he had complained about the loose-fitting lids on the kegs of the powder, the fact that he's a cooper ... lends credibility to his complaint."

The coroner's jury blamed McBride and his subordinates for negligence, while a military tribunal cleared his superior, Symington, of any fault. Afterward, Ms. Jensen noted, Symington retired from the military while McBride remained on the job at the arsenal.

"They retired Symington and kept McBride," Ms. Jensen said. "That speaks loudly."

lifestyle - civilwar - gettysburgstories

Marylynne Pitz: mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648. First Published September 16, 2012 4:00 AM


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