Bridesburg, PA Arsenal Explosion, Aug 1875



Philadelphia, Saturday, Aug. 7, 1875.
At 9:35 o'clock this morning there was a loud rumbling noise heard at the Frankford Arsenal, near Bridesburg, five miles from Philadelphia. This was succeeded by three or four loud reports, which told at once that there was an explosion. Unfortunately it proved the case, and one of the wood and iron frame buildings situated in the north eastern end of the arsenal grounds had been blown apart by the force of the explosion. This structure was only about 20 feet in width by 50 feet in length, and the frame, built with iron with girders for the roof of the same material, still stands. It was one of a series of twelve buildings used as laboratories, and was fifty feet from any other structure. In the one large room which it comprised were employed about thirty persons, and of this number only five escaped unhurt. Of the thirty, about twenty were boys whose ages ranged between twelve and eighteen years, the rest being men, and acting as instructors to the boys in the mode of taking bullets out of condemned metallic cartridges, and then picking the powder out with small iron picks, especially constructed for the purpose. To this use the building was devoted, and on each boy's work bench was a basin of water into which he emptied the powder, and as soon as this became full it was emptied into a large tank, also filled with water. So it will be seen that every precaution was used to guard against explosion. Oftentimes the powder would stick and defy the efforts of the picks to dislodge it, when the boys would knock the metallic case on the table, but sometimes would use a hammer, and strike it on the fulminating portion of the case. This was dangerous, and the boys were warned of it time and again, and threats of dismissal for disobeying orders were at last promulgated for anyone noticed in thus endangering life and property. It is supposed that by this latter method the explosion was produced. It cannot be accounted for otherwise. Immediately after the explosion of this one cap, the powder on the tables caught, and communicated with some cartridges in the room, awaiting cleaning, and in a second the whole place was ablaze.
One of the injured parties said that he first saw the flame at the north eastern end of the room, where three boys named FARRELL, DEARION, and McLAUGHLIN were working. He did not have time to arise from his work, so quickly did it reach him.
The cartridges were scattered around the grounds, but no damage was done to any other building. The most disastrous part is the loss of life and the terrible wounding which everybody in the room, with few exceptions, received. Only one was killed outright JAMES McLAUGHLIN, son of a soldier on duty at the arsenal, while another named WILLIAM McMILLAN, was terribly wounded. A boy named GEORGE ZILLIER, sixteen years old, residing at No. 4,072 Tacony street, was horribly burned, and died this afternoon. JOHN BUTLER, twelve years old, was in great agony, and may die from his wounds. Both these boys had their eyesight destroyed. WILLIAM DEAL, aged about twenty-six, was seriously burned about the head, shoulders, and breast, but will probably recover. Young McMILLAN, who died, had his thigh bones broken by being thrown against the wall and its falling upon him. The wounds of the injured are all above the waist the boys being seated at tables, and the fire running along them. Some had their hands, some their breasts and necks scorched. There were no limbs dislocated nor any torn from the sockets, as is generally the case at explosions of this kind. The wounded were as follows, all boys: WEISS, WILLIS, WURTZ, of Bridesburg; DEARDON, of Frankford; SHIELDS, son of a soldier at the arsenal; FARRELL, son of the Sergeant of the guards; STIEGER, ROSS, and VANZANT.
There was not much powder in the building at the time of the explosion, which in a measure accounts for there not being more killed. The true cause of the escape is the fact that the building was constructed to meet such accidents. The wooden portions fitted into the iron frames, and a concussion forced them out, affording easy facility to those not killed outright to jump to the ground, a distance of about four feet. Before the building was put to its present use it was experimented upon, and 700 pounds of powder placed in it. The woodwork was demolished the same as today, and the iron frame left standing. This method has been adopted for all buildings devoted to similar uses at the arsenal. The place will be boarded up, and work be resumed on Monday next.

The New York Times New York 1875-08-08