The following information is based on the records of the Allegheny Arsenal, the coroners inquest into the causes of the explosion there, and the Ordnance Department Inquiry into the conduct of Col. John Symington.
The Allegheny Arsenal was established by the U.S. Army Ordnance Department nearÝPittsburgh in 1814. It was situated on 30 acres of land bordering the Allegheny river in the community of Lawrenceville, which had been founded that same year by William Foster, father of composer Stephen Foster, who was born there in 1826.
The arsenal served as a supply and manufacturing center for the troops in the west. Its peak years came during the Civil War as the demand for supplies, especially the manufacture of cartridges, became a high priority. Civilian employment at the arsenal increased from a pre-war total of 308 to over1100 workers. One of the busiest facilities was the main lab, which employed 158 workers, the majority of whom were females engaged in the making of cartridges. It was in this facility that the worst disaster at a U.S. Arsenal during the war took place.
Tuesday 17 September 1862 was later described as a quiet day. It was payday at the arsenal and the paymaster had arrived at the main lab, setting up his table in a nearby building used a changing room for the workers. The lab employees were called out in groups to receive their pay. At that same moment a wagon driver had just delivered 10 barrels of gunpowder to the lab. Outside on one of the porches, a young man named Smith was seen stepping over one of the barrels. The time was 2 P.M.
At that moment, John Ryder, who was packing cartridges in a room adjoining the porch, looked out through an open doorway and saw a "flash of powder." Fearing the worst he ran toward the open door only to be forced back by the explosion of the barrels of powder. The explosion shattered windows in the surrounding community and was heard in Pittsburgh, over two miles away. Someone in a nearby storehouse yelled: "The rebels are blowing us up" and the workers tried jumping out of 2nd floor windows until one of the officers restored order there. Fire fighting apparatus was brought forth to try and contain the blazing fire in the lab. One worker, Mary Jane Black, later described running from the building and hearing the sound of screams behind her. Turning, she saw two girls. "They were on fire; their faces were burning and blood running from them; I pulled the clothes off one of them; while I was doing this, the other ran up and begged me to cover her. I did not succeed in saving either one."
Alexander McBride, Superintendent of the Lab, was in his office when the first explosion occurred. As the walls around his office began to collapse, McBride ran to a window and climbed out. Once outside he walked along the side of the building in an effort to get to room 6 where his teenage daughter Kate was working. He had just gotten up onto the porch leading to the room when its ceiling collapsed amid a rush of flames and dust which forced him back. Alexander McBride would survive the explosion. His daughter would not.
At the sound of the first explosion, Col. John Symington, Commander of the Arsenal, rushed from his quarters and made his way up the hillside to the lab. As he approached, he heard the sound of a second explosion, followed by a third. ìShells were bursting very frequently, some in the air, but they generally burst below, scattering the fragments above.î Fire fighting equipment as well as a bucket brigade of men tried to dowse the flames with water. The volunteer fire company from Pittsburgh arrived and assisted in bringing the fire under control.
By the time the fire was put out, the lab had been reduced to a pile of smoldering rubble. Workers raked trough the remains trying to recover bodies, which were laid out on planks for identification. A hand found outside the arsenal grounds was identified by the ring on its finger, as was a foot by the type of shoe, but of the 78 workers killed 54 bodies were unidentified, and were buried in a mass grave in the nearby Allegheny Cemetery.
As to the cause of the explosion, the most commonly held view was that the metal shoe of a horse had struck a spark which touched off loose powder in the roadway near the lab, which then traveled up onto the porch where it set off several barrels of gunpowder. A coroners jury held that the accident had been the result of the negligent conduct of Col. John Symington, Commander of the arsenal, and his subordinates in allowing loose powder to accumulate on the roadway and elsewhere. However, during a subsequent military inquiry into the conduct of Col. Symington, many of the same witnesses who had appeared before the coroner suddenly changed their testimony. There were so many discrepancies between the two hearings that most of the commonly held views of the explosion have been shown to be thoroughly discredited. In the end Col. Symington was found innocent of any wrong doing by the army, and the court concluded that "the cause of the explosion could not be satisfactorily ascertained...."
Col. Symington in a letter to the Ordnance Department two days after the explosion speculated that it had been caused "by the leaking out of powder when one of the barrels was being placed on the platform" In fact the problem of leaking barrels seemed to be the one point of agreement among all the witnesses. Alexander McBride, the Superintendent of the Lab, had repeatedly complained that the powder shipped by Dupont and Company was delivered in defective barrels with loose covers. Symington was suspicious that the "parties shipping powder may have used barrels more than once for the shipment of powder, as the barrels have been returned to them at their request." But in the end, the final word still belongs to the Army inquiry and the exact cause remains unknown.
Work at the Arsenal continued, and a new lab was constructed by the following year. With the end of the war, the importance of the Allegheny Arsenal had decreased and it served primarily as a storage facility for the Ordnance Department and Quartermaster Corp until the early 1900's when most of the land was sold off. Today the site of the explosion is in a ballfield in the appropriately named Arsenal Park. Nearby is the powder magazine, now a maintenance shed for the park, on the wall of which is a plaque reminding people of the tragedy that took place there on a quiet afternoon in 1862.
The above is a brief summary of a larger work on the Allegheny Arsenal, much of which was presented at the Duquesne University History Forum in 1993.
Allan Becer has been researching the Allegheny Arsenal since 1982 and has presented papers dealing with the Arsenal at History Conferences as well as a slide show on the Arsenal and its role during the Civil War. Allan is also working on a biography of Col. Abram R. Woolley (1784-1858), the first commander of the arsenal, who is buried in Sprinfield, New Jersey, and would appreciate any information relating to him as well as additional facts on Col. John Symington of Maryland (and Uncle of Gen. George Picket) , Lt. John Edie, and Lt. Jasper Myers, all of whom served at the arsenal during the time of the explosion. Any information, questions or comments may be addressed to:
253 FISK ST.
PITTSBURGH, PA 15201-2847
E-Mail: Allan Becer