The Fire that Destroyed the Miners' Powder Company of Pelhamville in 1878
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As noted yesterday, during the final decades of the 19th century there were at least seven massive explosions at powder manufacturing plants near Pelham Bridge that rattled the Pelhams and left a trail of carnage, devastation, and death. See Thu., Dec. 15, 2016: Repeated Dynamite and Powder Manufacturing Explosions Rocked Pelham Bridge and Bartow. For a time, the little settlement of Pelhamville feared that it might suffer the same fate. As fate would have it, Pelhamville nearly suffered exactly the same fate.
During the 1870s, famed engineer and Pelham Manor resident George Huntington Reynolds founded a company name Miners' Powder Company and established a dynamite manufacturing plant in Pelhamville about one hundred feet from the New Haven Line railroad tracks. It is not known with certainty where the plant was located, but it seems most likely that it was not far from the foot of First Street near the Hutchinson River.
Reynolds became famous during the Civil War when he designed and oversaw the construction of the steam engine that powered the famed Union ironclad Monitor that battled the Merrimack (the CSS Virginia) on March 9, 1862. He became an expert elevator engineer sought worldwide for his specialty. Most interestingly, he received a host of patents for so-called "dynamite guns" (powerful artillery pieces that delivered large explosive charges). He became consulting engineer of the Pneumatic Dynamite Gun Company of New York and superintended the gun construction of the dynamite cruiser Vesuvius. I have written of George H. Reynolds before, including an extensive biography of him. See Wed., Feb. 24, 2016: What is Pelham's Connection to the Civil War Ironclad USS Monitor that Fought in the First Battle of Ironclads?
It appears that George H. Reynolds never really announced plans to open a dynamite manufacturing plant in the tiny community of Pelhamville. Instead, he simply began constructing the facilities. Curious local residents soon learned of the purpose and united to oppose the plant. Reynolds assured them that his plant was different. He claimed that he had developed an entirely new explosive composition that was "not explosive" until joined with a particular fulminate that had to be exploded by percussion. He further assured that the fulminate (a product of fulminic acid often used as a detonator) "would be added elsewhere," thus ensuring that his new dynamite plant was a safe new business for the benefit of the little settlement of Pelhamville.
Reynolds seems to have been persuasive. By 1878, and likely before, the Miners' Powder Company was up and running in Pelhamville, only one hundred feet away from the main New Haven Line railroad tracks. . . .
Samuel J. Sparks was hired as the engineer of the facility. He had important, long-standing ties to Pelhamville. Samuel J. Sparks was a brother of William H. Sparks, a builder in Pelhamville in the 1860s and 1870s and owner of William H. Sparks & Co., a Pelhamville construction firm. During the 1860s, Samuel Sparks served as a clerk and book-keeper for William H. Sparks & Co. Though Samuel left Pelhamville for a time thereafter, by 1878 he was back and working at the Miners' Powder Company.
Reynolds claimed to have a "secret ingredient" that, in effect, rendered his explosives inert until he added the secret ingredient elsewhere. Did he? Within a short time, the Miners'' Powder Company was sued in a patent infringement action that revealed the formula for its dynamite. Assuming the formula disclosed at the time was accurate, it is hard today to identify a secret ingredient. The purportedly "secret formula" was:
Nitroglycerine . . . . 33.00%
Nitrate of soda . . . . 49.88%
Charcoal, wood and partially charred wood . . . . . . . . 17.21%
Ash . . . . . . . . . 1.18%"
Source: United States Naval Institute Proceedings, Vol. X, p. 223 (Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Institute, 1884).
Based on the many other dynamite formulae published at about the same time, the formula used at the Pelhamville facility must truly have had a "secret ingredient" because, except for very tiny differences in the percentages of identical components, the formulae of many local competitors seem to have been essentially the same.
Residents of Pelhamville simply could not get over their fear of the dynamite works next to the railroad tracks. One news story noted that the plant "occcasioned considerable anxiety to [New Haven Line] passengers as they ride up and down the road, lest an explosion should occur as they pass the works." That fear nearly came to pass on February 4, 1878.
That day, the buildings of the Miners' Powder Company in Pelhamville were bulging with a "considerable quantity of materials" used in the manufacture of dynamite cartridges including nitroglycerin, several hundred pounds of the explosive ready to be packed into cartridges, and a considerable number of complete cartridges in packages ready for use.
Plant engineer Samuel J. Sparks and several employees were on the site at about 8 o'clock in the morning when a fire of "mysterious origin" broke out. No one hesitated a moment. Everyone fled for their lives the moment the fire was discovered. Within moments it raged throughout the dynamite works. I have, in fact, written about this terrible fire before. See Thu., Apr. 23, 2009: Pelhamville Fire on February 4, 1878.
No one even tried to extinguish the fire. Members of the Mount Vernon Fire Department were summoned and started for the scene of the fire. When the volunteer firemen learned that it was the dynamite works in Pelhamville that was burning, they reportedly "wheeled about and returned, having on a previous occasion witnessed the terrible effects of a nitro-glycerine explosion in the neighborhood."
The fire completely destroyed all the buildings of the dynamite works. There was, however, no explosion. Perhaps there was something to Reynolds's claim that his explosives included a secret ingredient that rendered them less dangerous. In any event, the plant was a complete loss. Though the losses totaled about $3,000, there was no insurance covering the plant. Within a short time, Miners' Powder Company was dissolved (in 1881). See Smythe, R. M., ed., Obsolete American Securities and Corporations, p. 466 (NY, NY: R.M. Smythe, 1904) ("Miners' Powder Company. Office in New York. Dissolved 1881."). The tiny settlement of Pelhamville became a little safer.
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Below is the text of a number of articles that provide information about the Miners' Powder Company and the fire that destroyed the dynamite works on February 4, 1878. Each is followed by a citation and link to its source.
About eight o'clock yesterday morning some frame buildings at Pelhamville, Westchester county, owned and occupied by the Miners' Powder Company, were discovered on fire ,and in a very brief period were totally destroyed, none present manifesting a disposition to use any efforts to extinguish the flames at the risk of their lives, and the fire laddies of Mount Vernon, after starting for the scene of destruction, on learning from whence the alarm proceeded, wheeled about and returned, having on a previous occasion witnessed the terrible effects of a nitro-glycerine explosion in the neighborhood. The buildings and contents destroyed were estimated to be worth about $3,000, upon which there was 'no insurance.' It is understood that the buildings will be rebuilt as soon as possible. At the time the erection of the buildings was commenced the residents of the vicinity, becoming aware of the purpose for which they were to be used, protested against them, but they were assured that the composition was not explosive except in connection with a certain fulminte arranged to act by percussion, which would be added elsewhere. The mysterious origin of the fire, and the fact that all the employees at the works fled as soon as the fire was discovered, led the residents of the place to infer that the cartridges manufactured there for blasting purposes are not quite so harmless in their character as they had been led to suppose. The location of these powder works is only about one hundred feet from the tracks of the New York and New Haven Railroad, a fact which has occasioned considerable anxiety to passengers as they ride up and down the road, lest an explosion should occur as they passed the works. At the time of the fire the buildings contained a considerable quantity of materials used in making the compound, also several hundred weight of the mixture prepared for the manufacture of cartridges and a number of complete cartridges in packages, all of which were consumed without any explosion. The engineer, Mr. Samuel J. Sparks, escaped from the building in his shirt sleeves, leaving his coat and watch to be consumed. As there was no fire used in the building except that under the boiler in the engine room the origin is involved in mystery."
Source: NO INSURANCE, N.Y. Herald, Feb. 5, 1878, p. 5, col. 5.
"LOSSES BY FIRE.
A frame building belonging to Miners' Powder Company, at Pelhamville, Westchester County, took fire shortly after 8 o'clock yesterday morning and in a short time was totally destroyed; no insurance. The loss is roughly estimated at $3,000. The cause of the fire is a mystery, and can only be accounted for on the hypothesis of spontaneous combustion. The company manufactures an explosive for blasting purposes. It is composed of nitro-glycerine with charcoal, sawdust, &c. as absorbents, is put up in the form of compact cartridges, and is asserted to be non-explosive, except in the use of a certain fulminate arranged to act by percussion, and which is added at the warehouses in New-York, so that the cartridges at the factory will burn freely, but only as fuse or roman-candles do. It is claimed also, that a secret ingredient is used in the admixture which renders the cartridges non-explosive. . . ."
Source: LOSSES BY FIRE, N.Y. Times, Feb. 5, 1878, p. 5, col. 5.
"The Miners' Powder Company's Buildings Destroyed.
On Monday morning last some frame buildings at Pelhamville, owned and occupied by the Miners' Powder Company, were discovered to be on fire, and in a very brief period were totally destroyed, none present manifesting a disposition to use any efforts to extinguish the flames at the risk of their lives. The buildings and contents destroyed were estimated to be worth $3,000, upon which there was no insurance. The location of these powder works is only about 100 feet from the tracks of the New York and New Haven Railroad, a fact which has occcasioned considerable anxiety to passengers as they ride up and down the road, lest an explosion should occur as they pass the works. At the time of the fire the buildings contained a considerable quantity of materials used in making the compound, also several hundred weight of the mixture prepared for the manufacture of cartridges and a number of complete cartridges in packages, all of which were consumed. The engineer escaped from the building in his shirt sleeves, leaving his coat and watch to be consumed. The origin of the fire is unknown. It is understood that the buildings will be rebuilt as soon as possible."
Source: The Miners' Powder Company's Buildings Destroyed, Eastern State Journal [White Plains, NY], Feb. 8, 1878, Vol. XXXIII, No. 43, p. 3, col. 4.
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