11 American Industrial Disasters

Each era of US manufacturing creates new industrial hazards. Prior to the advent of nuclear power and large chemical manufacturing, the largest industrial disasters in the US tended to be caused by the technology of the times. In the 1800’s, this included the advent of early high explosives like nitroglycerin, the beginning of steam power and thus boiler explosions, and the push to make factory buildings ever larger which led to collapses. In the early 1900’s, there came the danger posed by the mass production of arms for war, and the advent of manufacturing and storage of brand new chemicals.
Lancaster Pennsylvania Dynamite Explosion

 Workers at the Belmont quarry were thawing dynamite to prepare it to be used for blasting quarry rock, when it exploded. The dynamite was stored in a small shed, and Linarolo Pugliez was just entering the shed when the blast occurred. He was killed instantly, and the building was blown to pieces. One other worker was badly injured by flying debris. Fifteen other workmen were nearby, but none was injured. A mule they had with them at the time escaped injury. Unfortunately, Pugliez’s dog was with him, and it was also killed.
Cleveland East Ohio Gas Explosion
 The Cleveland East Ohio Gas Explosion occurred on the afternoon of Friday, October 20, 1944. The resulting gas leak, explosion and fires killed 130 people and destroyed a one square mile area on Cleveland, Ohio’s east side. The natural gas storage tank at the East Ohio Gas Co. plant in Cleveland, Ohio, was located north near East 61st and East 62nd Streets. The explosion occurred at 2:40 PM on a Friday afternoon. Fortunately, the explosion occurred when schools were still in session, keeping many children away from the heart of the explosion. To increase storage capacity in the tanks, the gas company had liquefied the gas. Apparently, storage tank #4 sprung a leak along a seam and started to release the liquefied gas. The prevailing winds off Lake Erie forced the vapor towards the city.
St George Utah Oil Well explosion
 Drilling for oil, whether in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, or on land in 1935, is dangerous business. One of the most dangerous points in the entire oil drilling process is called “shooting the well”. On January 21, 1865, Col. E.A.L. Roberts made the first successful oil well shot, on the Ladies Well near Oil City, Pennsylvania. This was the spot where, five years earlier on August 27, 1859, Col. Edwin L. Drake completed the first well drilled specifically for oil. Roberts used 8 pounds of black powder to blast open or “shoot” the well. Oil Well Shooting in no small measure saved the fledgling Pennsylvania oil industry. Over time, black powder was replaced by nitroglycerine, dynamite, TNT, and other more powerful, effective  high explosives.
Nixon Nitration Works Explosion
 The Nixon Nitration Works covered about twelve square miles on the Raritan River, near New Brunswick, in what was then unofficially known as Nixon, New Jersey. It was originally created at the outbreak of World War I to supply some of the warring nations of Europe with gun powder. The company manufactured cellulose nitrate, the first plastic, which is highly flammable. The cellulose nitrate was piled in large stacks of sheets in the surrounding buildings. Within the Works, Nixon leased a building to the Ammonite Company. Ammonite was using the facility to salvage the contents of artillery shells for use as agriculture fertilizer. The building reportedly contained one million gallons of ammonium nitrate in storage and fifteen tank cars, each holding 90,000 gallons of ammonium nitrate in the process of crystallization.
Morgan Depot Explosion
 The Morgan Depot Explosion, occurred at 7:30 p.m. on October 4, 1918, at an ammunition plant operated by the T.A. Gillespie Company and located near Sayreville, in Middlesex County, New Jersey. The initial explosion triggered a fire and subsequent series of explosions which continued for three days. The facility, said to be one of the largest in the world at the time, was destroyed, along with more than 300 buildings, forcing reconstruction of South Amboy and Sayreville. According to a 1919 government report, the explosion destroyed enough ammunition to supply the western front for six months.
Chicago Crib Disaster
On January 20, 1909, during the construction of a water intake tunnel for the city of Chicago, a fire broke out on a temporary water crib, used to access an intermediate point along the tunnel. Water cribs are offshore structures that collect water from close to the bottom of a lake to supply a pumping station onshore. The temporary water crib was located a mile and a half off shore in Lake Michigan, and was being used to construct a new submarine water tunnel to Chicago. There were about 95 men working on the crib when the fire began, in a dynamite magazine stored in a small out building. This then set fire to the wooden dormitory that housed the tunnel workers. With literally nowhere to run to safety, 46 workers survived the fire by jumping into the lake and climbing onto ice floes on the frozen lake. However, about 60 men died, with 29 men burned beyond recognition. 

Grover Shoe Factory Collapse
- 1905
 It’s hard to believe today, but at one time shoe manufacturing was a major business in the United States. New England was an especially productive area of the country for shoe manufacturing. One of the largest shoe manufacturers was the R. B. Grover shoe factory, located in Brockton Massachusetts, a town that employed about 35,000 shoe workers, at the time. The Grover Shoe Factory was a wooden building, shaped like a letter E, that occupied half a city block. Business had been good enough of late that Grover decided to add a fourth floor to the building to increase production.
Washburn A Mill Explosion
As we learned from the previous list of American Industrial Disasters– organic dust of any type can become explosive under the right conditions. On May 2, 1878: The Washburn “A” Mill in Minneapolis was destroyed by a flour dust explosion, killing 18 people. The mill was rebuilt with updated technology and the explosion led to new safety standards in the milling industry.
The first Washburn A Mill, built by C. C. Washburn, in 1874, was declared the largest flour mill in the world upon its completion. On May 2, 1878, a spark ignited airborne flour dust within the mill, creating an explosion that demolished the Washburn A, and killed 14 workers instantly. The ensuing fire resulted in the deaths of four more people, destroyed five other mills, and reduced Minneapolis’s milling capacity by one third. Known as the Great Mill Disaster, the explosion made national news and served as a focal point that led to reforms in the milling industry. In order to prevent the buildup of combustible flour dust, ventilation systems and other precautionary devices were installed in mills throughout the country.

 Wells Fargo Explosion

Nitroglycerine was invented in 1846, by Ascanio Sobrero. Before the invention of dynamite by Albert Nobel, it was one of the primary explosives used for excavation and mining activities. Nitroglycerine is also highly unstable and reactive, and can explode with minor changes in heat or pressure, and even the slightest shock. Prior to 1867, nitroglycerine was shipped in liquid form. This lead to one of the greatest industrial accidents of early California.
In April 16, 1866, three crates of nitroglycerin were shipped to California for the Central Pacific Railroad. They wished to experiment with its blasting capability, to speed the construction of the 1,659-foot Summit Tunnel through the Sierra Nevada, for the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. The crates exploded, destroying a Wells Fargo office in San Francisco, and killing 15 people. The force of the explosion destroyed an area of 40 to 50 feet, including most of the Wells Fargo office and surrounding businesses. Windows were blown out as far as half a mile from the blast. For up to a quarter of a mile away, people thought they were experiencing an earthquake.
Pemberton Mill Disaster

The Pemberton Mill was a large factory in Lawrence, Massachusetts, which collapsed without warning on January 10, 1860, in what was one of the worst industrial calamities in American history. An estimated 145 workers were killed, and 166 injured. The Pemberton Mill, built in 1853, was a five story building, 280 feet long and 84 feet wide. The original owners sold the mill, and the new owners jammed more machinery into their factory, attempting to boost its profits.
Shortly before 5:00 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon, workers in nearby factories watched with horror as the Pemberton Mill buckled, and then collapsed, with a mighty crash. Owner George Howe escaped as the structure was falling. Dozens were killed instantly, and more than six hundred workers, many of them women and children, were trapped in the twisted ruins. When the winter sun set, rescuers built bonfires to illuminate their efforts, revealing “faces crushed beyond recognition, open wounds in which the bones showed through a paste of dried blood, brick dust and shredded clothing.”
Hague Street Explosion

On February 4, 1850, just after work had begun for the day at 8:20 AM, an explosion rocked the press room and machine shops of A. B. Taylor & Co., hat manufacturing building on Hague Street, New York City. The boiler in the press room and machine shop had exploded. Over one hundred people employed by Taylor & Co. hatters were at work. Witnesses claimed the explosion lifted the building off its foundation and it collapsed into a pile of rubble, trapping those inside.
Firemen responding to the scene had to dig to try to find survivors, including many young boys. One boy was buried in the rubble for 33 hours before finally being rescued, but he died a short time later. In total, sixty-three people were killed, while about seventy were injured. The cause of the explosion was attributed to the boilers – which were still relatively new pieces of equipment in 1850, and prone to disastrous explosions. The owners claimed it was a new boiler but others stated the boiler was an old one, taken from a ship and patched together.

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