Shenk's Ferry, PA Dynamite Explosion, June 1906







Lancaster County, Penna. - One of the most horrible and distressing accidents that has occurred within the boundaries of Lancaster County in many years startled the people on Saturday afternoon. It is doubtful whether there has even before been an accident in this section in which so many lives were lost in an instant, or that left so many people grief-stricken people. The more particulars that are received of the affair the more horrible it appears and the details are simply sickening. The lives of eleven men were wiped out as quickly as lightening flashes and the cause of it was the blowing up of part of a plant for making dynamite.
The factory was located in Bausman's Hollow, about 400 yards south of the new low grade railroad, and between that and the Susquehanna River. It is in Conestoga Township, a little over a mile east of Shenk's Ferry, at which point the new railroad leaves the river, and between that place and Colemanville.
There are many people who were of the opinion that this plant, at which dynamite has been manufactured in great quantities, was operated by H. S. Kerbaugh, the contractor, but such is not the case. The plant was the property of the G. R. McAbee Powder and Oil Company, of Pittsburgh. The superintendent in charge is Albert Rapp, who, although a young man, has had a long experience in the manufacture of explosives, as well as the use of them. He is said to be a very careful and entirely capable man, and always urged upon the men employed by him the necessity of being very cautious in handling such dangerous material. For about two years the plant has been turning out dynamite and they sold it not only to the contractors along the river road, but others in different places. At the time of the explosion they were filling a large order for the new McCall's Ferry Dam.

Cause Unknown.
What caused the accident may never be known, as all the men who would be able to tell it are dead and those who escaped know little or nothing to relate. There have been many accidents on the low grade road and some of them have been considered terrible, but they cannot compare with this one. In those accidents most of the victims were Italians, or other foreigners, who were unknown in this country and little was thought of them. In this case it is far different. All of the men killed were Americans and seven of them were residents of the little town of Colemanville, on the Pequea Creek, or in that vicinity. Four others were from different sections of the county, but they had been employed for a long time at the factory. Many of the local people were close relatives.

The Dead.
PHARES SHOFF, of Colemanville, aged 18 years.
BENJAMIN RINEER, of Colemanville, aged 23 years.
JOSEPH RINEER, of Colemanville, aged 19 years.
WILLIAM FUNK, of Colemanville, aged 18 years.
W. COLLINS PARKER, of York Furnace, aged 16 years.
FRED RICE, residing near Colemanville, aged 25 years.
JOHN BOATMAN, of Pequea, aged 17 years.
J. CURTIS MYERS, of York, aged 38 years.
ERNEST TURNER, of Boyd Mills, Wayne County, aged 35 years.
GEORGE HATHAWAY, of Emporium, Pa., aged 19 years.
EDWARD HOLMES, of Buffalo, N.Y., aged 27 years.

The Injured.
MARTIN RINEER, of Colemanville, father of the dead boys of the same name, right arm broken and badly cut and bruised.
JOHN GEPHART, of near Colemanville, badly cut about the head and body by flying missiles.
GEORGE GRAY, of Colemanville, struck by a rock in the breast and cut around the head.
HENRY BOATMAN, BENJAMIN JOHNSON, CHARLES CREAMER, ABRAHAM SCHWARTZ, JACOB SHOFF and WALTER BOWERS, were more or less cut and bruised, but they were not seriously injured.

Girls Escaped.
While the making of dynamite is considered a very dangerous occupation, it is astonishing how many people are anxious to work at it. One reason is that the pay is very liberal and the young men of that section took to the employment very readily. Quite a number of young girls were also employed at the plant, but none were hurt on Saturday, although all were terribly shocked.

The Plant.
Superintendent Rapp was very careful in the selection of his employees and he had about forty people, all told, in the place. The plant was situated in an out of the way place, surrounded almost entirely by hills. There were a number of buildings, all of frame, in the little settlement. The main buildings were a storage house, in which stock was kept, and a boiler house, 40 x 70 feet, quite close. Right opposite these buildings and not far away was the punch house, where the explosion occurred. Here the dynamite was placed in paper tubes, which were loaded with a funnel and then pressed down with a wooden punch, or stamper. Each package was then covered with parafine, after which they were placed in wooden cases, with a capacity of about 50 pounds each. The paper shells, were made by girls in a building about 250 yards from the punch house. West some distance from the boiler room was the box house, where the company made their own wooden boxes, or cases, in which to ship the dynamite. Some distance farther west and across the small stream was an old dwelling house, which Superintendent Rapp used as his private office. One of the principal ingredients in the manufacture of dynamite is nitro-glycerine, which is a very dangerous explosive. It was made in a small building some distance back of the punch house from which it was sent to the mixing house in a rubber tube, where it was mixed with other things. It when went to the punch house, looking something like certain kinds of breakfast food, of much more weight.
The report was awful and in an instant the hollow was illuminated by a bright yellow light and it was followed by a dense black smoke. The shock was terrible and was distinctly heard for miles, while near by, the earth was shaken as though an earthquake was in progress.
Those who escaped with their lives had peculiar experiences. Superintendent Rapp was in his office making out the payroll and the explosion was so sudden that it caused him to jump through a window, taking sash and all with him, and we was followed by several others.
In a few moments another explosion occurred at the nitro-glycerine house, but it did not do much damage. Some men were unconscious for a short time and when those there were able to take in the situation they only realized what a terrible catastrophe had happened.

Buildings Take Fire.
By that time there was nothing left of the punch house, and a great hole in the ground marked where it stood. The stock and boiler houses were in flames in an instant, and were soon in ruins, while the boiler and machinery were completely wrecked.
Nothing could be found of the men who had been last seen in the punch house and then the real truth that all had been killed flashed upon those living. Hundreds of people flocked to the place and all were anxious to lend assistance.

A Freak Of Dynamite.
While the fire at the stock house was in progress it was noticed that a car loaded with dynamite in cases was standing near to the burning building. Many men got behind it and pushed it farther away. In doing this one of the queer freaks of dynamite explosions was illustrated. The mystery was why did this car load fail to explode? The terrible explosion did not appear to have produced a sufficient concussion, although many boards were torn from the car and lids of the cases, containing the dynamite, in the cars were actually torn off.
Another surprise was that there was no explosion at the warehouse in another part of the plant, which contained about two car loads of dynamite, all ready for shipping. This building was badly torn, but the dynamite did not respond.
There were about 7,000 pounds of glycerine in another part of the plant, which did not explode, either. There were sufficient explosives in that hollow to set a whole state in an uproar, but miraculously it did not do so.
All the trees immediately near were trimmed of their leaves and many had their limbs completely stripped off. Several trees as large around as a man's body were broken off like pipe stems, and they turned a rusty color. The shock was felt all around.

Two Carloads Escaped Explosion.
Another good sized building on the ground was used for storing dynamite. When the accident occurred there were at least two car loads of cased dynamite in that building, which was not discharged. All around the grounds there is a little railroad, which was operated by a horse trained to the business, and the animal drew loaded cars with material, stock, etc., from one building to another. This horse was driven by a young man named Lee. He had just taken a car load of material to the punch house and then started in another direction to the shell house for a load of shells. While on the way the explosion occurred. The horse ran away and stepped over the side of the road bed and fell down an embankment into a creek, where he was found uninjured.
Between the different buildings of the plant were many large trees and the place is so isolated that it is very difficult to approach, on account of the high hills and dense underbrush everywhere but in the paths. A broad gauge railroad track connects the plant with the Columbia and Port Deposit Railroad. Visitors to the place were not many and signs posted everywhere warned them that they were not wanted. Through the kindness of Fred Shoff a representative of the "Intelligencer" spent a day inspecting the plant the surrounding country and succeeded in obtaining many interesting particulars of the sad accident.

When The Accident Occurred.
The accident happened a few minutes before one o'clock. A watch belonging to one of the dead men, which was afterwards recovered, showed the time to have been 12:42, as it stopped at that moment. The men had nearly all returned to work and in the punch house were: The two RINEER brothers, FUNK, PHARES SHOFF, PARKER, JOHN BOATMAN, TURNER, HATHAWAY, HOLMES and MYERS. FREDERICK RICE was sitting in the doorway cutting paper. At that time the men in the punch house were very busily punching and casing the dynamite, of which there was about 2,500 pounds in the building, as closely as can be estimated.
Suddenly the explosion came and the men were simply torn to pieces, while the building was blown to splinters. Pieces of timber were sent flying through the air in all directions.
At the farm of Jacob Sigman, almost a half mile away, the barn was thrown out of plumb, and several sashes of windows were torn completely out of the house. Mr. Sigman said that when the explosion came his whole house inside was illuminated by a yellow color, which lasted almost a minute. At the house of Herman Gephart, not far from the factory, every window pane was broken, as were all the dishes. Mrs. Gephart was sewing and she was thrown to the floor. At Jacob Risser's, a half mile away, the windows were broken from the house and the dishes were all smashed. It was the same in other houses of the neighborhood, although those named were the closest and in Colemanville the doors were opened by the shock and the windows rattled.

The Injured Cared For.
People felt shy of venturing too near the plant on Saturday, as they feared that there were more explosives that might go up, but those present began a search for the dead men. While this was going on others attended to the injured. The most serious case was that of MARTIN RINEER, who was bleeding from a terrible cut in the head. He was attended by Dr. Kendig, of Conestoga Centre, who found that the man's right arm was broken and he had an ugly hole cut in the same limb. The cut in the head was not serious. He is doing nicely now and is in no danger. JOHN GEPHART was cut about the had and at first it was reported that he would die, but the physicians say he will get along all right.
When they were hurt RINEER and GEPHART, with GEORGE GRAY and WALTER BOWERS, were at the box house. GRAY, who was the engineer, was hurt by a flying stone in the right breast and knocked out for some time. BOWERS was hurt to some extent. The other men were near the offices, and they were cut and bruised as stated about, but none seriously.
In the shell house the young girls who were at work were Flora Frank, Daisy Shoff, Nellie Warfel, Edna Rice, Esther Greiner and Edith Rineer. Two little sisters of the last named were also present, having brought dinner for their father brothers and sister. All of the girls were knocked over, and many suffered for some time afterwards from the shock.

Searching For Bodies.
All Saturday afternoon and evening the search for bodies of the dead men was kept up, and the evidences found told a terrible tale. Pieces of flesh as small as a silver dollar and as large as a paper dollar were brought in having picked up in every direction. Small bones and pieces of flesh were gathered up until they filled three dynamite cases. One of these pieces was a foot, and another a hand and arm to the elbow. There were all taken in charge by Undertaker Zercher, of Conestoga Centre, who held them to await order for burial.
During Sunday there were thousands of people at the place, but the dynamite company had a force of their own special officers on duty who kept the curiosity seekers from funning indiscriminately over the plant. Everybody thought it was their duty to assist in the search for bodies, and the hills were covered with men and boys.
During Sunday morning a large force of Italians were sent up from Kerbaugh's work, and they were put out to search. They carried long sticks and boxes, and as they made their was through the underbrush and looked up in the trees they reminded one of chestnut gatherers. Pieces of skulls, fingers and other parts of men were picked up in the queerest places.
Harry Bertzfield found the backbone and several ribs of a men lodged in a tree 250 yards away, and the flesh had been blown from the bones, so that they looked clean and white.
During the morning sufficient of the remains of one man were found to warrant an inquest. Fully 300 yards from the place of explosion and near the low grade railroad line it was lying in the grass. The marks on the ground showed that it had come with great force, beating down the grass. There was one arm, a portion of the trunk and half of the neck and face. It was identified as a part of the body of FREDERICK RICE by his brother, who knew it by a scar on the wrist that came from a cut several years ago.

The Inquest.
Deputy Coroner Wade, of Conestoga Centre, had notified Coroner Witmer, and the tow, with Undertaker Zercher, went to the place of the explosion in the afternoon. After hearing that a part of RICE'S body had been identified it was decided to hold an inquest on it, the result to decide all of the cases. A jury was sworn, composed of George Lawrence, A. J. Zercher, Frederick Shoff, Harry H. Hensel, Benjamin Beach and James Lungren.
The first witness called was Albert Rapp, superintendent of the plant. He testified that he was in his office when the explosion occurred. The building was terribly wrecked and he jumped out the window, as did several other men who were with him. He knew nothing as to what caused the explosion, although it might have happened in many ways. When asked if it could be caused by careless handling of the stuff, and especially if it was thrown down heavily, he said it might.

The Probable Cause.
George Gray testified that he was at the box house, where he was engineer. He could see into the punch house, and he saw J. CURTIS MYERS place one box of dynamite on top of another. As he did so Gray saw a spark come out as the two boxes touched each other - just such a kind as a gasoline engine would send out. At the same time the explosion occurred and Gray knew little for some time afterwards, as he was struck by a stone.
Several other witnesses who had been more or less injured in the explosion testified, but threw no light on the subject, as to what caused the accident. None of them knew much, and nearly all said they were dazed for some time after the explosion. All were more or less cut about the face. The jury found that RICE same to his death by an accidental discharge of dynamite at the plant of the McAbee Company.
No one seems able to give any cause for the accident, but it may be that some one of the employees handled a case with less care than usual, and MYERS may have been that man. It is likely that the real cause will remain a mystery, although there is no doubt from what the "Intelligencer" representative learned that the management of the plant exercised the greatest care, and was very strict with the men. The latter would naturally grow careless in handling the dangerous explosive the more they did it. One of these no doubt caused all of the trouble. It is said that men who handled dynamite often spoke in a bragging way to timid friends as to what they could do with the dangerous stuff without causing it to explode.

A Distressed Village.
If there was a village in Lancaster County where there were unmistakable signs of grief on Sunday it was Colemanville, for there were several households from which members were missing. This was especially noticeable at the RINEER home. MARTIN RINEER is a hard working man, and his two sons who perished in the explosion were good boys and members of a family of twelve children. It was a sad sight at their home to see the father covered with bandages, yet caring nothing for his own injuries, but lamenting the death of his two sons. The death of young RICE is also particularly sad. He is a son of Louisa Rice, and leaves a wife and two children, one of the latter being only two weeks old. His wife is almost wild with grief.
FUNK is a son of William Funk, and a boy of good reputation. PARKER'S father lives at Bridge Valley and JOHN BOATMAN is a son of Henry Boatman, of Pequea, who has also been employed at the dynamite plant. All three are mere boys, and felt very proud of their job, which enabled them to make considerable more money that they otherwise could have done. PHARES SHOFF is a son of Samuel Shoff, of Colemanville. Several of the families to which the deceased boys belonged are relatives, and there is general sorrow in the village. The BOATMAN family has been very unfortunate, as another son was killed on the railroad recently.
Of the strangers ERNEST TURNER came from Wayne County, as it is said. J. CURTIS MYERS was known on the plant as "Klondike." GUS HATHAWAY was said to be a Swede and he was called
"Happy Hooligan." ED HOLMAS was known as "Highspire," and his home formerly was in Buffalo, N.Y. They were all good workmen and made many friends, coming as they did perfect strangers in that neighborhood.
The funeral of the victims will take place on Tuesday afternoon at 2:30 at the Colemanville M. E. Church. As things now stand it is the intention to bury all the remains so far found in one grave except those of RICE. His funeral will be held at 10 o'clock on Tuesday morning.
The news of the accident caused great excitement in this city and the reports were very greatly exaggerated, although the accident was bad enough as it was. Many people took advantage of Sunday to go to the place and the Pequea Trolley Road carried several thousand people to different stations, from which they walked to the place where the accident happened.
It is the opinion of many people that a great portion of the bodies were blown into the fire caused by the burning stock and boiler house, where the pieces were cremated.

Taken From "Unchartedlancaster.com" the disaster happening June 9, 1906.