Friday, April 15, 2016

When Powder Kegs Were Literal Rather Than Figurative

In a previous post, we called attention to the now-forgotten menace of soda fountain explosions in late 19th and early 20th Century Tennessee. Soda fountains, of course, were not the only sources of fatal explosions during this period. Indeed, the damages created by the bursting soda fountain pressure tanks we reported were strictly minor league compared to the destruction created by explosions of local blasting powder mills and storage magazines reported over the years.

While searching our ProQuest Historical Newspaper database for articles on the construction of the Tennessee State Capitol building in Nashville, one of our staff members encountered a startling headline:

“Explosion of a Powder Magazine by Lightning: AWFUL CALAMITY.”

Full page and zoom-in of headline from the October 15, 1847 edition of the Nashville Republican-Banner.

This headline captioned an article in the October 15, 1847 edition of the Nashville Republican-Banner. The exploded powder magazine was located “at the back of Capitol Hill, scarcely more than a quarter of a mile from the Public Square.” The magazine, which probably stored blasting powder used in the capitol construction project, “contained, as we understand, upwards of five hundred kegs of powder.” The story pointed out that the building housing the powder had completely disappeared, and “the bricks composing it had been scattered like cannon balls through the neighborhood.” Casualties included three people dead and three badly wounded, and “scores of others, more or less hurt by the flying missiles …,” which also killed a cow and a horse.

A follow-up search of the ProQuest database yielded numerous reports of subsequent magazine explosions, including eight that occurred in the Nashville area between 1870 and 1906.

On March 30, 1898, the Nashville American reported “A Heavy Explosion,” giving details of an early morning explosion at the Sycamore Powder Plant north of Ashland City. The explosion, which injured four employees, was reportedly felt as far away as Lebanon, Springfield, Bellevue, and Murfreesboro.

That wasn't an isolated incident at the Sycamore Powder Mills. The Republican Banner, Daily American, and Nashville American reported five other explosions at the Sycamore Mills between 1871 and 1903. Given the frequency of these eruptions, we can perhaps admire the courage of the 18 Vanderbilt chemistry students who visited the plant with their instructor on a field trip reported in the Daily American.

Sycamore Mills was closed in 1904, but that didn't end to the danger for Tennesseans.

The April 15, 1905 the American reported an explosion so powerful it was first thought to be an earthquake. The explosion of some “500 pounds of dynamite and 600 kegs of powder” at the Mason, Hogue & Co. magazine at Baker’s Station, about 17 miles north of Nashville, created a crater twenty-five feet deep and covering “a half-acre of land.” Two Nashville policemen witnessed a shaft of flame they estimated to be a half-mile high, which they erroneously thought came from another plant on White's Creek Pike.

Full page and zoom-in of headline from the April 15, 1905 edition of the Nashville American.

Their assumption might have been clairvoyant. On September 15, 1906, the American published a report on the explosion of the Southern Mill & Mining Co.’s powder magazine on White’s Creek Pike, not far from Bordeaux. Awakened by the explosion, guards at the state prison initially suspected a plot to blow up the prison’s walls.

A follow-up article the next day identified the owner of the obliterated magazine as the Keystone Powder Co., which was offering a $500 reward for the apprehension of the “incendiary” believed to have set off the explosion with a portable electrical battery.

We saw no evidence that the culprit was ever found. But fallout from the explosion included a law case reported in the July 7, 1908 American. Residents of the White’s Creek neighborhood sued to keep Keystone Powder from rebuilding the magazine. Keystone argued that “it had the right to rebuild and use the magazine without posting guards or entering into bond to protect complainants.” In a blow to the laissez-faire philosophy espoused by Keystone, the state chancellor disagreed. The court enjoined Keystone from rebuilding the magazine until it posted a $25,000 bond “to keep a suitable guard at the magazine and to satisfy any damage that may result to complainants by an explosion.”

The ruling that owners of operations like powder magazines were obliged to protect neighboring citizens, a novel concept that gained popularity throughout the Progressive Era of the early 20th Century, must have helped to suppress the explosions of local powder mill and magazines. Our ProQuest database does not yield accounts of any such explosions in the Nashville area after 1906.

Twelve years later, the United States government built the largest powder plant in the world in nearby Old Hickory. But there are no reports of explosions occurring during the short time this plant was actually producing gunpowder. Citizens in the Middle Tennessee area would no longer be rattled out of their beds, at least by magazine explosions. And state prisons guards were free to focus on more subtle and silent strategies of escape.

The Tennessee State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State.

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