Arsenal explosion as told in Pittsburgh Catholic's pages

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1862 newspaper account painted vivid picture of tragedy 

John Franko
Staff Writer

There are few physical reminders of the Sept. 17, 1862, explosion which killed 78 people -- mostly teenage girls -- at the Allegheny Arsenal in Pittsburgh's Lawrenceville neighborhood.

A portion of the original powder magazine, a commemorative plaque, walls made of stones that are thought to have come from the arsenal.

But the horror is relived through newspaper accounts of the day. Like every newspaper in the city, the Pittsburgh Catholic was there to tell the story.

"Of all the sad memories connected with this (Civil) war, this will be to the people of Pittsburgh the saddest," stated an account in the Sept. 27, 1862, edition. "None who has looked on the fearful scene of that Wednesday afternoon can ever forget it. The charred bodies, the scattered remains, the vain search of agonized mothers, all spoke of the terrible, overwhelming nature of the disaster."

The Allegheny Arsenal manufactured cartridges and shells to support the war effort of the Union army. At its peak, more than 1,000 workers were employed at the arsenal, whichwas made up of a series of structures. The explosion took place in the laboratory. Some 150 girls and 25 boys were believed to be in the building at the time.

As workers, girls were preferred to boys because the boys were thought to be too careless for the conditions.

The explosion, which occurred around 2 p.m., was heard throughout the city. The account described the frenzied scene as citizens and physicians rushed to the site of the calamity.

"We went with the crowd and found that reality for once exceeded the report," the newspaper account stated. "We cannot attempt to describe the scene, but will endeavor to give our readers some idea of its horror."

The force of the explosion was so great that fragments of the laboratory were found hundreds of feet away. The building was reduced to a smoking pile of debris. Fragments of charred wood, torn clothing, balls, caps, grape-shot, exploded shells, fragments of dinner baskets and steel springs from the girls' hoop skirts littered the ground.

The body of a young girl was found 200 feet away.

Newspaper accounts of the day were much more graphic than contemporary accounts. One of the milder accounts from the story stated, "... (H)ere two sisters, one dead, the other in the last agonies -- here a father and daughter -- here two children whose names were known, but the parents could not distinguish one from the other."

The account also described the curious visitors to the scene and the efforts to offer comfort to the dying and injured.

The careless movement of gunpowder had allowed it to fall upon the roads outside of the structures. While the exact cause of the explosion was never determined, it is believed a spark caused by the shoe of a horse striking the ground ignited the gunpowder. The fire then followed the trail of the gunpowder into the building.

A callous account pointed out that "The loss to the government is not heavy and will, we think, be fully covered by $10,000."

The Oct. 4, 1862, edition of the Pittsburgh Catholic reported a coroner's jury ruling that the explosion was caused by the neglect of Col. John Symington, commander of the arsenal, and by his lieutenants, J.R. Edie and Jasper Myers. Alexander McBride, superintendent of the laboratory, was also cited for gross negligence.

Few of the bodies could be identified. More than 50 of the unidentified were buried in a mass grave at Allegheny Cemetery in Lawrenceville. A monument there commemorates the tragedy. A number of victims also were buried at the adjoining St. Mary's Cemetery.

The entire accounts of the tragedy can be accessed through the Duquesne University Gumberg Library Digital Collections at www.pittsburghcatholic.org. Digital images of the newspaper from March 1844 to December 1923 can be accessed for free.