Events to recall arsenal explosion
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The 78 women and girls who suffered fiery deaths after a series of explosions at the Allegheny Arsenal on Sept. 17, 1862, were daughters and sweethearts, wives and mothers. Some were as young as 12. This weekend is your chance to serve on a jury that will examine what caused the deadliest civilian accident during the Civil War.
From 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday at the Senator John Heinz History Center, forensic pathologist Cyril Wecht reviews the evidence with Jim Wudarczyk, author of "Pittsburgh's Forgotten Allegheny Arsenal," and Tom Powers, who writes the Lawrenceville Historical Society's newsletters. Other panelists include Andrew E. Masich, president and chief executive officer of the history center; Michael Kraus, curator of Allegheny Soldiers and Sailors Memorial; and Jimmie Carol Oxley, an explosives expert from the University of Rhode Island.
The jury, which will be made up of history center visitors, will gather in the Thomas and Katherine Detre Library and Archives room on the building's sixth floor.
Some believe the fatal spark was struck by an iron-banded wagon wheel or a horse's hoof when they came in contact with black powder strewn across a stone road. Others suspect the Confederate Army sabotaged the arsenal. Other theories are that careless handling of gunpowder or static electricity from the women's metal hoopskirts caused Pittsburgh's deadliest industrial accident. The cold case event is free with admission to the history center.
On Sunday, the Lawrenceville Historical Society sponsors an afternoon of free events. At 11 a.m., local historians, musicians, performers and re-enactors will gather in Lawrenceville's Arsenal Park at 40th and Butler streets to recount the horrific events of that day and to honor the women who died while making ammunition for Union soldiers in the Civil War.
From 11 a.m. to noon, Mr. Powers and Mr. Wudarczyk will outline theories about what caused the three explosions. The duo will unveil a three-dimensional animated illustration of how the arsenal looked in 1862 and show the sequence of explosions. Stone walls around the park, two powder magazines that are now restrooms and an officers' quarters are all that remain of the original arsenal buildings.
From noon to 2:30 p.m., three students from the Civic Light Opera Academy of Musical Theater will portray the arsenal girls in a dramatic reading. Playing the roles of the young workers will be Chelsea Calfo, Victoria Huston and Johanna Loughran. Stephen Moles, a re-enactor from Penn Hills, will play the role of Alexander McBride, the superintendent who was blamed for the accident and lost his 14-year-old daughter, Kate, in the explosion. His wife, Lisa Moles, will serve as narrator. The dramatization concludes with the singing of "The Vacant Chair," a popular 19th-century tune, and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."
The script was written by Mary Frailey Calland, a Mt. Lebanon woman whose Civil War-era novel is set in Pittsburgh and titled "Consecrated Dust." The phrase appears on a cemetery memorial honoring the women.
From 12:30 to 1 p.m., the Lawrenceville Historical Society will combine smokeless powder with traditional black powder to do a gunpowder demonstration. Re-enactors use traditional black powder to load their weapons. Throughout the afternoon, the Sons of Union Veterans will demonstrate their weapons.
Between 1 and 4 p.m., Allegheny Cemetery will shuttle people from Arsenal Park to the Arsenal Memorial in the cemetery. Docent Martha Ressler leads the tour.
From 1 to 2 p.m., The Pittsburgh Historical Music Society will perform under the direction of William Lockard.
At 2 p.m., Mr. Powers and Mr. Wudarczyk will repeat their presentation. Mr. Powers, who runs Power Media and Design in Aspinwall, began publishing the Lawrenceville Historical Society's newsletter two years ago at the suggestion of Dan Simkins, the historical society's president. By researching the arsenal's history, Mr. Powers and his fellow historian, Mr. Wudarczyk, hope to revive interest in local history and focus attention on the need to improve Arsenal Park.
Between 3 and 4 p.m., Company G of the 1st Pennsylvania Light Artillery will fire their cannon.
First Published September 12, 2012 12:00 am