Friday, September 24, 2010

The Pittsburgh Arsenal Fire


On the battle of Antietam claimed 23,000 casualties in the bloodiest day of the Civil War. In Pittsburgh, PA a local tragedy was being played out.

Around 2:00 pm on Wednesday September 17, 1862 the arsenal lab exploded killing 78 workers and shattering windows in the local community. The site was the largest single civilian disaster during the war.

Most of the workers at the lab were young girls who were employed in making cartridges. The facility employed 1,100 people with 158 located at the lab. The local fire department responded to the blast, but by the time the fire was extinguished 78 people were dead and the lab was reduced to a pile of smoldering rubble. The devastation was so severe that 54 of the bodies could not be identified and were buried in a mass grave in the Allegheny Cemetery.

The subsequent investigation suggested that the fire was started by the metal horse shoe which struck a stone and caused a spark that ignited loose powder in a roadway near the lab. The fire quickly spread to the porch where it set off two barrels of gunpowder. However subsequent testimony suggested that the powder trail was due to leaking gunpowder barrels which were refilled by the manufacturer DuPont Powder Company. The testimony was so conflicting that Col. John Symington and his subordinates were found innocent of any wrong doing and the court concluded that" the cause of the explosion could not be satisfactorilly ascertained."

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