Mill Explosions

Between the founding of the DuPont Company on Brandywine Creek in 1802 to the yards' closing in 1921, there were 288 explosions, resulting in the deaths of 228 people. In the oral history interviews, former residents and workers recall these catastrophic events.

Two particular explosions loom largest in the collective memories of those interviewed. The first is the October 1890 explosion in the Upper Yard, which caused extensive damage to dozens of workers homes and was felt as far away as Philadelphia. The second is the November 1915 Packing House explosion. Although this event caused relatively little property damage compared to the 1890 blast, it killed 30 people, many of them among the yards' youngest employees, making it the second deadliest explosion in the yards' history.

The clips that follow include recollections of both yard workers and relatives about the most frightening aspect of life near the powder yards.

William Buchanan and the 1915 packing house explosion

William H. Buchanan, born 1892, learned electrical work from his father Albert "Yabba" Buchanan, a lifelong DuPont employee. Buchanan was in the middle of installing a buzzer system in the Brandywine Shops' office on November 30, 1915 when the pellet packing house exploded, killing 30 people, many of them young employees. As the deadliest explosion in the powder yards since 1818, this event is well-remembered by the interviewees.

In this clip, Buchanan describes rushing to turn off electricity to the yard immediately after the explosion and witnessing the dead being gathered.

Interviewer: ...about 1917 was there a bad one?

Buchanan: There was a bad explosion in 1915 when 32 was killed. That's the big explosion I remember. I'm most sure, in the office over here, I was putting a buzzer system in there. And that would buzz from one office to another. And Up in the attic it was kind of dark and I had no light up there and no flashlight, but I had a 110 volt line there and I had a 550 volt line there. See we had that in our electrical shop for testing motors and things like that. That was DC. So I thought, well I'll find out one way. So I took two lines, and I could just barely see them, see it was a shingle roof, I skinned that and I wrapped the wire around them. I had an electric lamp there. 110 volt. And the other one, I skin it, and I took the other wire and put it on a stick. And see if I touched it the light would light. If it was 550 the light would blow, see? And maybe knock the breaker out. Well anyhow, I put it on the stick and I touched the line and the light lit up. I said, "Well that's it." And just that time everything was so quiet, and the shingles on the roof, you know, they kind of raised up and I could see daylight, and boy what a crack. One of the first thing in my job was to run over there and knock the breaker out. Kill everything up the yard. There was just a little hole there, when you went through there, and them joists, man I run over them joists, I just gave one dive right straight out of that hole. I don't think I ever touched it, and landed on the floor where the steps is. Went down over and knocked the breaker out and of course went up the yard right away.

Interviewer: this was the 1915 explosion?

Buchanan: 1915, yea. 32 I think was killed. And boy, I'll tell you...

Interviewer: That was the packing house, wasn't it?

Buchanan: It was all the pellet presses along there. Went up. I don't know if the packing house blew that time or not, I guess it did. 

Interviewer: Were the pellet presses were run by electricity?

Buchanan: Yes, I think they were run by electricity. Yes, there was no waterwheel to run them. That's when the AC was put in up there. That took care of them. Henry Giles, he had charge of the electrical work then. He done a good bit of electrical work up there himself. That was AC. The control house was out along the road there. I remember one control house there for the motors was right close to the iron bridge there. Funny how they just took all these bodies and put'em in one great big pile there and well my job was to get the lines off the road, get'em up there and tie it up, and get the switch in, get the lights on again. That's what I done. A lot of them was buried right over here in Silverbrook Cemetery.

Interviewer: Oh is that when they were all buried together? Silverbrook? They couldn't identify them? 

Buchanan: Yea. You couldn't. They were all blowed to pieces. You could see any part of a man you wanted to see. For a long while after that, we'd be working up the yard and you'd find little pieces of flesh and we'd just take our heel and make a little hole in the mud and put it down and stamp it down and say nothing to nobody.

Interviewer: Did you ever hear any explanation, what they believed caused that explosion.

Buchanan: Never heard, never heard what caused it.

Interviewer: Mechanical failure, or carelessness?

Buchanan: Couldn't tell ya. 

Interviewer: Nobody was guessing at it. 

Buchanan: Lot of these explosions nobody knew. As far as I know they didn't know. Anyhow, it was pretty bad I'll tell you that.

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1915 explosion seen from Wilmington

Image: Smoke cloud from explosion seen from the top the Wilmington YMCA building, November 30, 1915. (Hagley ID: 1971245_001)

Mary Perrone takes matters into her own hands

Twisted metal from explosionA native of Italy born in 1900, Mary Perrone immigrated to Squirrel Run in 1918, where she married an Italian powderman. During her time on the Brandywine, she raised three young children and accommodated boarders in the couple's home.

In this clip, Perrone speaks about a powder yard explosion that injured her husband and describes how she then conspired with the boss, Joseph Haley, to ensure her husband wouldn't lose his life in the mill.

Bennett: How about explosions at the yard? Do you remember any of the explosions?

Perrone: I remember a lot of them. But as long as there are none of yours involved in it, you don' hear them and you feel sorry for the ones that either got killed or got hurt. But one particular time my husband was in it. We heard this explosion. Well, what are you gonna do? We wait 'til they come back. See which one come back and which didn't come back. I remember I was standing on the porch. The store had a porch all around it, so I was standing on the porch waiting for my husband and the other men to come up. Everybody came home but my husband. I had one man, [Gallone?] he was along side of me and he said, "Why don't you go home?" I said, "What for? I'm waiting for my husband." He said, "If he wasn't dead he'd be here by now." [Everyone gasps.] That was a nice thing to tell me, wasn't it.?

Yeah, Charlie [Gallone]. And until this day, he was my daughter-in-law's mother's brother. And I said, "Well, I'm still gonna wait." The reason he was late, he was in the wash house. And the window blew out and it hit him on the face. He had to go to the hospital to get stitches put in, you know. That's why he was late coming home. That was it. After that, I told him...I told Joe Haley, he was the boss, what they called the boss, I guess. What do you call them, managers, supervisors, whatever...They say boss. I said, "Mr. Haley, I want you to take my husband out of the powder mill." He said, "Well that's what he wants to do." I said, "It's not what he wants to do. It's what I'm telling you to make him do." I said, "You give him work outside. Either that or fire him." I was glad he didn't fire him, because what were we gonna do. You gotta eat. Naturally. And, well he talked him out of it. He made him get out. He said, "You know, Ed. I don't need you really. I need you more outside than I do inside." Of course outside was almost as danger, but you weren't as close to it. You always had a better chance, I think. And when he come home he said, "You know what Joe Haley did?" I said, "What did he do?" He said, "He put me outside." I said, "Oh, good. Aren't you glad?" He said, "No, I want to be inside the mill." I said, "Well if they put you outside, you stay outside. Maybe they'll put you back another time." Then, about a month later, my husband has to go back in. And he came up and told me afterwards, he said, "Mrs. Perrone, I almost did something today that I would have regretted the rest of my life." I said, "What did you do?" He said my husband asked him to put him back in the mill. He said, "I was just about ready to say yes, then I change my mind. I got Gaino to go in there instead of him." The man got killed that day. They had an explosion, the men was in there and got killed.

Bennett: The same day?

Perrone: Yep. The very same day that they put the man in there, he had an explosion that very same day and he got killed.

Bennett: Did your husband ever find out?

Perrone: I never him and Mr. Haley never told him.

Bennett: That was your secret?

Perrone: I told him, "Don't you ever tell him, because he'll divorce me for sure." In those days they didn't use divorce, but he probably woulda left me anyway. "No," he said, "I'm not gonna tell him." He told me, he said, "Boy am I glad I changed my mind. I was just about yes, to tell him yes, if you wanna go in, go in. Then I saw Joe, what-you-call, Gaino. I put him instead." Well Gaino, at least he didn't have no babies. It was bad enough. And he wasn't even living with his wife anyway, at the time. But I had three small babies.

Bennett: I guess in a way they considered, a foreman considered the family situation...

Perrone: Probably.

Bennett: And everything else...

Perrone: Maybe. Could be. Because he come up to me the next day and said, "Oh, Mrs. Perrone, What I almost did yesterday." I was surprised. I didn't even give it a thought, you know, that he was going to ask him. He said, "I was gonna ask your husband to go in," because every day he passed him, he wanted to go back in. He says, "And I was ready, my mouth open, to say go ahead. Then I saw Joe Gaino and I got him instead."

Bennett: Kind of gives you the creeps.

Perrone: I know. It's like the coal mine. You never know when they go down if they gonna come out. That's the same thing. I'll tell you, it wasn't easy. But we made it.

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Image: Twisted metal thrown during explosion, 1921. View image in the Digital Archives

Daniel Shields and a 1909 graining mill explosion

The son of a DuPont charcoal house Graining mill rubbleemployee, Daniel Shields was born in the Upper Banks in 1894. Shields worked on the DuPont Company farm as a boy, and from 1912 to 1929 he worked at the Green & Flinn lumber and coal yard in Greenville, often delivering lumber to the powder yards.

In this clip, he recalls how he and other local boys were swimming near the Upper Yard graining mill on August 7, 1909 when it exploded and killed the man operating it, John Mott.

Interviewer: Any other explosions that you remember coming into the yard? 

Shields: Yes, there was one other one, Joe. There was one, one wall. It was a Saturday afternoon. I wouldn't remember what year it is. You can check it. The records company would have the records. The upper yard grinding mill again. It was Saturday afternoon about 3 o'clock, 3 to 3:30. We're swimming. We used totake our clothes off on the other side of the creek on Saturday afternoon. That's on [unintelligable] side now. Up one these stones. And then just above the dam breast there was a great big rock and it's still there. This afternoon we had taken clothes off just opposite this flat rock. Went across the creek to the du Pont dock, what we called it in those days, they had a little dock. They had their canoe house, a little square, where they kept canoes. Eugene would have his canoes in there and differnent other ones would have their canoes in there.

Interviewer: This would be approximately opposite the little temple building? A little further upstream on the opposite side? In Mrs. Crowninshield's but on the opposite side of the creek?

Shields: No, it was on this side along her side. But this little dock was a wooden pontoon, say about three to four foot wide that extended from the bank out into the water so the canoes come come on down to the and pull in without getting their feet all wet. Well, we had swim across and we're having a good time swimming. We had a couple of canoes. Of course, their canoes but we used them just as much.. in fact we used them more than they used them. And we were taking a rest on this dock. All of the sudden there was a flash went out of that mill. I never saw anything like it in my life. I never forgot it and never will. Now, who, ones who were there that afternoon was Charles Seits, was superintendent over at Hercules Experimental Station. Charlie was there, and he's still living.  

Interviewer: Is he a brother to the Mrs. Seits'?

Shields: Yea, he's brother to Florence and Pauline. Charlie was there and, oh, one or two of the Dougherty boys, and a Hackendorn boy, and myself, and I'm sure my brother was there. Whole group of boys. When that thing went off, we dove in that water as quick as if somebody hollared, "Get under the water". Man, when we came to the top you never heard such a shower of hot metals hitting that water in all your life. Of course the heavier stuff went over. We had to swin back to the other side and we swam back to getting in our clothes on the other side. Get around there. Little pieces of aluminum were hot near your bare feet and everybodies on there bare feet. I mean it was something. It killed that man and the man that I read ran that mill his name was John Mott. Originally he came from Reading. 

Interviewer: M-o-t-t. John Mott.

Shields: John Mott.

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Image: Rubble of the graining mill after the explosion, August 1909. View image in the Digital Archives

Philip Dougherty fights fires after an 1898 explosion

Born in a Charles' Banks house in 1874, Philip Prismatic pressDougherty started working in the Henry Clay keg factory at the age of thirteen. He stayed with the DuPont Company until 1913, performing various jobs throughout the powder yards. On a cold December morning in 1898, Dougherty was trying to thaw out a frozen prismatic press (pictured right) when an explosion occurred in Hagley Yard.

In this clip, he describes how he initially ran away from the explosion and then returned to the upper press mill to fight the fire.

Doughtery: In 1898 I was running what they called a Number Three Prismatic at Hagley. Prisms. I was running that there when Hagley blew up. About 10 o'clock in the morning, you see. Me and a fellow by the name of Tommy Knox. 

Interviewer: Tell us more about that...

Dougherty: It was an awful cold morning. We had a hydraulic press that went up and came down on the prisms. You see what I mean? We went in there that morning to start up that, startup, couldn't start. What happened, the cylinder was all frozen up. Frozen up solid. No water pressure to pump her down. The solution to that was we got a lot of bags tied around the cylinder. Got up on the top, poured hot water until we thawed it out. That happened to be the morning we were froze up.  You had five valves to work there. Of course you had to use some of them a couple times when the powder was pressed enough. She was just coming down and just hit the powder when this explosion started at Hagley. So this fellow and I all piled out the door as quick as we could. 

Interviewer: Where do you usually head for? 

Dougherty: I headed for the door and headed away from it, started up the road - running up the road. We stopped because there were two powder cars at that particular time right below us. Barney McVey and George Ward were both coming up and when this car blew at Hagley, it blew the press mill. What blew it he claimed were the horses coming into the yard which turned and upset the car.

Interviewer: Frizzell was driving the wagon. Wasn't it?

Dougherty: He was passing through there. He was passing through. But anyhow. it blew the rolling mills. I don't know how many blocks but I know these fellows had a devil of a time keeping these horses on the track coming up and until it was all over, but they stayed with them. So of course, I just shut the door. Me and the other fellow hopped the first thing that came along there with a team. We just jumped in the back and came on down here to the press mill.

Interviewer: This is the upper press mill.

Dougherty: There was a fellow they had carried in and another man lying there. I helped carry him. A nice chap. They called Dr. Chandler. He was in the neighboorhood at the time. He was one of the doctors. I was there when he come in. 

Interviewer: There was no plan in case of an explosion. There wasn't any firefighting system? Everybody just ran any...

Dougherty: You just grabbed whatever you could and fought the fire the best you could. A thing like that threw a lot of fire around different places. 

Interviewer: Where there tubs of water in the logical places, or did you make a dash for the race?

Dougherty: Well you had the race there you know, of course the put it out the best they could with whatever they had.

Interviewer: No firebuckets left around everywhere?

Dougherty: No, we didn't (...) around the powder mills like that, you know. Place like that you had a bucket or something. You had that of course but, whether you had buckets standing around I couldn't tell you anything about that.

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Image: A prismatic press of the type Dougherty operated, 1898. View image in the Digital Archives

Mary Braden Jackson and the death of her neighbor

Mary Braden Jackson's father, Henry Braden, Samuel Buchananwas an Irish immigrant who worked as a fireman and engineer at the Hagley Yards.

In this clip, Jackson, born 1895, remembers how her father and other adults living near the powder yards could tell immediately from the sound an explosion which building had “gone up.” She then recalls the morning in 1906 that her neighbor, Sam Buchanan, was killed when his graining mill exploded.

Bennett: How about explosions, do you remember the noises from explosions?

Jackson: Deed I do - knocked you out of bed sometimes. You had to know it, yes. Oh, we knew as soon as that went off. Everybody would holler in a chorus in the Village, "Oh, there's an explosion. Jim so and so is gone, or Henry so and so is gone or Billy so and so is gone." They all knew who the mill was - we knew whether it was the rolling mill or whether it was the grinding mill or we knew whether it was the packing house. We knew how heavy that sound was, we knew what men had gone up.

Bennett: You knew which it was?

Jackson: We knew it was the - the rolling mills weren't so loud, but we heard the rolling mills when they went up - on the morning, it was seven o'clock, half past seven when Sam Buchanan was killed in the grinding mill. Some call it grinding, some call it graining. I don't know which is proper. And it was about half past seven and my father had just come home from work, he worked all night. And as soon it went off, my father says, "Oh, God bless us, there goes Sam Buchanan." And we all went out on the porch, and we run down the road, we were going to the gates, you know, everybody, all the older people to find out who it was, and sure enough it was Sam Buchanan. And the large grinding mill wheel that was in his powder house that blew up, that was what was erected on Mrs. Crowninshield's estate in 1952 when the Company was 150 years old and I was there. And got ice cream and cake from Henry du Pont's farm.

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Image: Sam Buchanan as a young man, circa 1880. View image in the Digital Archives

Elizabeth Beacom gets “shot” in the 1890 explosion

In her interview, Elizabeth Beacom, born 1891 in Upper Banks after explosionSquirrel Run, details how explosions became fairly routine for people living near the powder yards.

In this clip, she describes how she may have been the youngest person to be affected by the great 1890 explosion at the Upper Yard, as her family claimed a birthmark on her foot came from the event. The explosion caused extensive damage to dozens of workers' homes. She also tells of a night when a fire broke out in Hagley Yard, threatening the grinding mill, and her mother led the family to safety while her father ran to the yards to help.

Beacom: I was born in 1891, seven months after the big explosion in 1890. I have this birthmark and it was said that's where it came from. I was born with this mark on my foot that looks exactly like a powder burn and everyone said that since my mother was carrying me while going through the explosion this was the result of that explosion. It's peppery, just like powder, and I would sit on the floor and scrub it with a brush and my brothers would say that's where you got shot.

Wilkinson: When this explosion occurred in October of 1890, your family was living in Squirrel Run - was it that severe that your house was affected by it?

Beacom: Yes. My mother ran toward the refinery. After any explosion all the wives would run to the plant to see if their people were hurt. Upper Banks and the banks across on the other side, known as Charles Banks, [and Chicken Alley] were really torn apart. The doors were blown in and everything. I think it was in this explosion that a beam fell on my father and he had his collarbone broken. [continued discussion]

Monigle: What was the explosion you said he took you all up to near the Yellow School?

Beacom: That was the big Grinding Mill down near Hagley Museum, right around the corner from there. And we always understood if it blew, it would blow the hill. It was the heaviest one, see. We had all gone to bed and we were all wakened and told to go up to the field and lie.

Monigle: There was danger it would explode?

Beacom: Yeah.

Monigle: Was it on fire?

Beacom: There was a fire next to it.

Monigle: What year would that have been, I wonder? How old were you?

Beacom: I was in my teens then because we wore rats in our hair you know to make a big pompadour and when we all met up in the field we all had a good laugh at each other. We didn't look alike.

Monigle: Did it blow?

Beacom: No, it didn't blow. See, they were afraid it would be set on fire. There was a fire in the yard.

Monigle: So tell us again, you went up to the top of the hill and your father had you...

Beacom: My father went to the Yard to see what he could do to help 'cause he was that type, but my mother took us all up to the field and we had to lie flat on the ground 'cause they said it was better for you. So then we stayed there until the fire was over then we all came back home. My father prayed that the wind would change and the community would be saved...on the way to the Yard.

Monigle: How did the people react to this sort of thing?

Beacom: Well, we were used to explosions. I remember when Mr. Whiteman was killed - it was on a wash day. My mother had her washtub on two chairs. In those days, they boiled their clothes in a boiler and stirred them with a broomstick. She told me to help her off with the boiler, and just as we went out the door, my, it did rip. It was a frosty morning and something struck me on the back of the hand and I had a lump the size of a walnut on the back of my hand. And we came in, the plaster was all down in our kitchen down in the washtub.

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Image: Damage to the Upper Banks caused by the explosion, October 7, 1890. View image in the Digital Archives