West Berkeley, CA Powder Works Explosion, July 1892


The Giant Powder Works at Berkeley


More Than a Hundred People Supposed to Have Crossed the Dark River.

San Francisco, July 9 -- An explosion occurred at the Giant & Gunson powder works near West Berkeley shortly after 9 o'clock this morning, destroying those works and much property for several miles around.
Five shocks were felt in this city within a few minutes, the last four being of terrific force, shaking buildings, cracking a number of walls and breaking plate glass in buildings eight blocks from the water front.
1:15 p.m. -- It is now believed that 104 were killed, including three white men, nearly all the men employed in the works being Chinese.
The explosion set the adjoining buildings on fire and owing to the danger of additional explosions no one ventured near the works to stop the progress of the flames.
At the office of the Giant Powder company in this city no details of the explosion are obtainable, the officers of the company having gone to the scene of the calamity.
It was thought, however, that the Judson works, which are located at Lobelle's about three miles from the Giant works were safe.
The Giant Powder works are located at Point Isabel and Highland, near Stege, and comprise five buildings and three magazines.
Of these buildings the acid and nitro glycerine works are known to have been destroyed, and at least one magazine blown up. Other buildings not immediately destroyed took fire and it is not believed that anything will be saved.
The loss on property will be heavy and it is also believed that there is a great loss of life.
From the top of the hill just above the works the scene beggars description. On the western slope the scattered timbers of the giant powder house blaze furiously, while little yellow streams running down to the bay show where the contents of the acid tanks had emptied themselves.
All mixing and packing houses of the black powder department are in ashes and also the sulphur mill, which buildings were located east of the scene of the explosion and on the opposite side of the hill.
The damage in the black powder works alone will reach $75,000.
The first explosion caused the giant powder magazine to blow up. The shock traveled in an easterly direction, and the black powder mills lay directly in the path, and burning brands were heaped upon the already wrecked buildings.
Before the Chinese employed there could all escape the powder in the black powder mills exploded. Those rescued say 17 Chinese were burned there.
PHIL HICKINGER was the first wounded man to be taken out through the cordon of guards which had been placed around the works. He was walking within fifty feet of the magazine when it exploded and his escape from death is considered miraculous.
CHARLES BROWN was the only man in the mixing house where the first explosion occurred and it is believed that he was blown to atoms. BROWN was considered a very careful man and for that reason was given the most responsible position.
A man named BOICE, who had charge of the tanks in the acid house, is believed to be among the killed.
The cause of the explosion is said to have been the upsetting of a hottle of acid in the office, which set fire to that building. Two injured Chinamen were taken out of the ruins at 12:30 and a number who escaped with burns and bruises are huddled near by, but are unable to give any account of the explosion, as they do not speak English.
The damage is estimated to be at least half a million dollars.
Trains passing near the works are compelled to slow up, owing to the damage to the tracks.
At 1 o'clock this afternoon no one was within a mile of the magazine, and no effort was being made to check the flames.
The five previous explosions were each of less than one hundred tons.
Over 800 tons of giant powder are stored in the large magazine. Everyone is getting as far away as possible.
Five bodies, three being those of white men employed at the works and two Chinese, have been taken to the Oakland morgue and a belief now prevails that this is the number of all those killed at the time of the explosion.
The number of injured has not been definitely ascertained.
Later dispatches from the scene of the explosion show that early reports are greatly exaggerated so far as loss of life was concerned.
Considering the terrific force of the explosion the loss of life is very small. It is believed it was confined to the three white men. Some Chinamen may have been killed, but it is not known positively.
Officers of the Giant Powder company went to the scene soon after the explosion occurred. As they regarded the wreck of every structure they expressed gratification at the small loss of life.
They say it is almost impossible to estimate the loss, but that $200,000 will probably be an outside figure for damage to the powder works.
The San Francisco chemical works, owned by EGBERT JUDSON and J. L. N. SHEPARD, is almost totally destroyed. Loss not far from $150,000.
Latest reports received this evening from the scene of the explosion at Highlands show that it has been definitely ascertained that five persons lost their lives -- the three white employes and two Chinamen.
It is believed that is the extent of the fatalaties.
A number of Chinese and several white persons were more or less seriously injured.
It is believed that the damages in this city from breakage of glass will reach $10,000.
The most terrific of the series of explosions were those caused by the blowing up of the powder magazines. Those were situated at a considerable distance from the nitro glycerine houses and were exploded by concussion.
There were three of these repositories and they went up one after the other in quick succession. One contained 350 tons of giant powder, another 950 tons of black powder, and the third held a quantity of dynamite.
The side hill where these were located now bears not a vestage of their occupancy and the place that knew them is represented by a great chasm that extends down below the line of water in the bay.
The actual cause of the explosion will never be known, the only men who could give any information on the subject now are stark, stiff and mutilated in the morgue.

The Fresno Bee California 1892-07-10