Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Forgotten History: Allegheny Arsenal Explosion

Each year, this nation stops to mourn the lives lost during the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. For most of us, the events of that day forever altered the fabric of our lives, usually to the point of ripping holes into what we'd thought were comfortable, seamless garments. I was struck last week by a question asked by my daughter, who was a toddler the day the planes hit and doesn't remember her world changing. She wondered if we would always have commemorations on that dreadful day and what they would be like when she grew up. Would people still remember those who were killed, or would the remembrances become far less personal and more a day for obligatory flag flying?

This was one of those moments parents dread, because I couldn't definitively answer her question. Historical precedent dictates that even life-changing events will be remembered differently as time passes.

For example, one hundred fifty years ago 78 civilians, most of them women and girls engaged in munitions work, were killed in an explosion at the Allegheny Arsenal in the Lawrenceville section of Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh Daily Post, 18 September 1862

It is understandable that this event was overshadowed by the Battle of Antietam fought near Sharpsburg, Maryland that same day, which resulted in more than 23,000 men killed, wounded, or missing. No article about Antietam fails to mention that 17 September 1862 was the bloodiest single day in American military history. The loss of 78 civilians some 180 miles north paled in comparison, and the Battle of Antietam even pushed the Arsenal story to page 3 in one local newspaper. Still, the Arsenal deaths were the worst loss of civilian life during the Civil War, and the memories of those victims deserve to be honored.

The Allegheny Arsenal was initially designed as a supply depot during the War of 1812 for the US military during its ill-conceived attempt to invade the region we now call Canada. The military presence at the Forks of Ohio (as Pittsburgh was initially known) had progressed since the colonial era from Fort Pitt to Fort Lafayette (mentioned on this blog before in the context of talking about the launch of the Lewis and Clark expedition). Fort Lafayette was deemed inadequate and closed in 1814. As noted when I wrote briefly about the Latrobe family, renowned architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe was commissioned to design the main building at the Arsenal. His proposed structure was greatly altered to this final form:

Allegheny Arsenal, circa 1870-1909, gelatin silver print. Source: Archives Service Center (ASC) at the University of Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Historic Photographs, 1884-present

The Arsenal typically employed between 100-200 people a day in various outbuildings, but production of what were termed 'military accoutrements' ramped up once the Civil War began. Nearly 1100 employees passed by these imposing Arsenal gates each day on their way to work.

Gateway to Arsenal circa June 1937.  Source: Archives Service Center (ASC) at the University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh City Photographer Collection, 1901-2002.

As so often happens in wartime, many women had come to do what would in times of peace be considered men's work. Of course, in times of peace, there would not be quite the same insatiable demand for MiniƩ balls and powder-filled cartridges. On 17 September 17 1862, 156 women and girls, plus some men and boys, were at work in the laboratory out-buildings of the Arsenal rolling .54 and .71 caliber cartridges and filling cannon shells.

Winslow Homer engraving of women and girls rolling cartridges at a federal arsenal in Massachusetts, published July 1861, Harper's Weekly,

An average day's work would yield 800 rolled cartridges per person for wages starting at 50¢ a day for the youngest and inexperienced. Contrast this with the 43¢ a day that a Union private got, with payment delayed for months at a time to their desperate families, and it's easy to understand why these jobs were attractive to the poor, mostly Irish immigrant girls and women of Pittsburgh. And so it was that many of Pittsburgh's poorest and most vulnerable families were left grieving the loss of their wives and daughters when the Arsenal went up in flames.

The cause of the Arsenal explosion has never been fully determined. A coroner's inquest began immediately that evening, and long deliberations eventually determined that a spark from the combustion of either an iron horseshoe or iron-rimmed wagon wheel was ignited when the metal contacted black powder dust swept onto the macadamized road in front of the Arsenal. Those roads contained a material called churt, which in certain combinations contains flint. The spark spread to the 100 pound barrels of black powder stacked all around the Arsenal premises and an inferno ensued.

Contemporary newspaper accounts spared no details about what horrors greeted Pittsburghers rushing to the scene. Skip the following description from the Daily Post if you are sensitive to graphic descriptions:

Of the main building nothing remained but a heap of smoking debris. The ground about was strewn with fragments of charred wood, torn clothing, balls, caps, grape shot, exploded shells, hoes, fragments of dinner baskets belonging to the inmates, steel springs from the girls’ hoop skirts, cartridge paper, sheet iron, and melted lead. Two hundred feet from the laboratory was picked up the body of one young girl, terrible mangled; another body was seen to fly in the air and separate into two parts; an arm was thrown over the wall; a foot was picked up near the gate; a piece of skull was found a hundred yards away, and pieces of intestines were scattered about the grounds. Some fled out of the ruins covered with flame, or blackened and lacerated with effects of the explosion, and either fell and expired or lingered in agony until removed. Several were conveyed to houses in the borough and to their homes in the city. Of these, four or five subsequently died.

Less than half of the bodies were identifiable. Some victims simply vanished without a trace in the blaze. The unidentifiable bodies were buried in a mass grave at Allegheny Cemetery, and 15 Catholic girls were laid to rest in the adjacent St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church Cemetery.

Because this year marks the 150th anniversary of this sad event, there has been a great deal of press coverage to commemorate the lives lost (see the end of this entry for a partial list of coverage). This short video produced by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette explains it all far better than I could (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette video LINK in case the embed isn't showing up below for you):

My daughter and I attended a lecture at the Heinz History Center last week presented by Jim Wudarczyk and Tom Powers of the Lawrenceville Historical Society. We returned to the History Center this past Saturday to attend a mock cold case inquiry presided over by former Allegheny County Coroner Cyril Wecht to determine the explosion's probable cause. Many questions remained after the 1862 civil inquest, which cited negligence on the part of Arsenal administrators for not stringently enforcing safety regulations. A military board of inquiry held a month later exonerated those officials, instead blaming the wagon driver and another (deceased) employee for negligence.

At the modern mock inquiry, expert witnesses were called to reconstruct history. We learned a great deal about munitions, the roles and lives of Civil War era women, the history of the Arsenal, and various military issues. All the while, a young lady with nimble fingers dressed in period costume sat to the side and rolled cartridges, just as Arsenal girls and women would have done 150 years ago:

Kate Lukascewicz portrays an Arsenal employee

The jury in this mock trial found that the Army officials in charge were negligent in assuring the safety of the facility, much as the original coroner's inquest had done.

While the case testimonies were fascinating, what was most moving for us was a brief commemoration in honor of those who had died. Members of the audience had been given index cards with a victim's name stood. Each stood and read their name aloud. My daughter was given Susan McKenna's name. We knew nothing about Miss McKenna, although we have since learned that she was 18 at the time of death and her remains were identified by a set of teeth. She was buried at St. Mary's Cemetery. For a few moments my vibrant and beautiful 13 year old stood in silence to honor this 150 year old ghost whose life had been cruelly cut so short.

And in those moments, I think we found the answer to the questions she'd pondered about the nature of commemorations. So long as caring people honor the past and seek to learn from it, those who suffered and died will always be remembered. The nature of the commemorations may change, but respect can always be paid. This was brought home to us when Marie Gray, a descendant of Arsenal blast victim May Collins, noted how sad it was that these victims had not received acknowledgement as heroes and patriots, and attested to how meaningful she found the History Center's belated tribute to be.

It is never too late to remember.

My daughter and I drove to Allegheny Cemetery in Lawrenceville to visit the gravesite of the explosion victims. We found Susan McKenna's name engraved on the memorial along with other names we'd come to recognize.

This is actually the second memorial on the burial site, the original obelisk with its listing of 40 or so names having deteriorated. An engraving on the side reads:
Time and its destructive elements obliterated the inscription and names on the original monument erected on this plot in 1863, which was in memory of the victims who lie buried here. The present monument was erected to keep ever sacred the memory of all seventy eight who lost their lives in this explosion.

The current memorial was dedicated in 1928, having been raised by the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War and that organization's Lady's Auxiliary. All 78 victims are listed on the memorial, although only 39 coffins are buried beneath and some fifteen people buried on the other side of the fence in St. Mary's Cemetery. According to a 1928 Pittsburgh Press article the list of victims was compiled through research and outreach to surviving relatives, and is as complete as such research could make it.

The best way, I think, to honor those who were lost that day is to pause for a moment as we did this past weekend to read their names. The inscription on the current memorial is copied from the original:
Tread softly this is consecrated dust, forty-five pure patriotic victims lie here. A sacrifice to freedom and civil liberty, a horrid moment of a most wicked rebellion. Patriots!  These are patriots graves, friends of humble, honest toil, these were your peers. Fervent affection kindled these hearts, honest industry employed these hands, widows and orphans tears have watered this ground. Female beauty and manhood's vigor commingle here. Identified by man known by Him who is the resurrection and the life, to be made known and loved again, when the morning cometh.

Elizabeth Ager

Mary Algeo

Mary Amarine

Hannah Baxter

Barbara Bishop

Joseph E. Bollman

Mary A. Bollman

Rose Brady

Ellen Brown

Alice Burke 

Sarah Burke

Catherine Burkhart

Bridget Clare

Emma Clowes  

Mary Collins

Melinda Colston

Mary Cranan

Agnes M. Davison

Mary A. Davison

Mary A. Donnelly

Ann Dillon

Kate Dillon

Kate Donahue

Sarah Donnell

Mary Donnelly

Magdalene Douglas

Mary A. Dripps

Catherine Dugan

Nancy Fleming

Catherine Foley

Susan Fritchley

Sarah George

David Gilliland

Virginia Hammill

Sidney Hanlon

Hester Heslip

Mary J. Jeffrey

Mrs. Mary J. Johnson

Annie Jones

Catherine Kaler 

Margaret Kelly

Uriah Laughlin

Eliza Lindsay 

Hannah Lindsay

Adaline Mahrer

Ellen Manchester

Elizabeth Markle

Elizabeth J. Maxwell

Sarah A. Maxwell

Ella McAfee

Kate McBride

Maria McCarthy

Susan McCreight

Ellen McKenna

Susan McKenna

Grace McMillan

Andrew McWhirter

Mary Ann McWhirter

Catherine Miller  

Philip Miller

Mary Murphy

Melinda Neckerman

Alice Nugent

Margaret O'Rourke

Mary Riordon

Martha Robinson

Mary Robinson

Mary S. Robinson 

Nancy Ross

Ella Rushton

Eleanor Shepard

Sarah Shepard

Elizabeth Shook

Ellen Slattery

Mary Slattery

Robert Smith

Lucinda Truxall

Margaret A. Turney


It's easy to remember them this year on the 150th anniversary of this event. But I hope that when the 151st anniversary comes 'round, or the 167th, that folks will remember and honor these victims again.

I also hope that one of the oldest sections of the Arsenal, the powder magazine that dates to circa 1817, will be preserved and maintained as an architectural witness to this tragedy. The magazine now houses restrooms and a maintenance room for the Arsenal Park ballfield and playground that is now on the explosion site.

Allegheny Arsenal Powder Magazine. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

It is in bad condition and very much in need of repairs. There are three other surviving buildings from the Arsenal complex but this powder magazine is the oldest and the one physically closest to the explosion.

Sometimes all we have left to honor and preserve from the past are a few names, consecrated dust, and an old empty building. But it is never too late to remember.

For further information about the Allegheny Arsenal:
1862 newspaper account painted vivid picture of tragedy 
184 38th Street
After 150 years, cause of Allegheny Arsenal explosion may never be known
Allegheny Arsenal 150 Years Later (NPR interview)
Allegheny Arsenal Exploded 93 Years Ago
Allegheny Arsenal Explosion and the Creation of Public Memory
Allegheny Arsenal Explosion: Pittsburgh's Worst Day During the Civil War
Arsenal Explosion Recalled by Completion of New Monument
Events to recall Arsenal Explosion
Event to mark 150th Anniversary of Allegheny Arsenal Tragedy (KDKA-TV clip) 
Historic Pittsburgh Arsenal Needs Care, Official Says  
'Jury' Finds Negligence in Deadly 1862 Blast 
Mock Jury Cites Military in Deadly 1862 Allegheny Arsenal explosion 
Neglected Lawrenceville park finally has a few friends: Group works toward making 'underused' Arsenal site more inviting
Pittsburgh's Bloodiest Day
Real Heroes Remembered: Allegheny Arsenal tragedy claimed 78 workers in 1862
The Next Page: The Allegheny Arsenal Explosion Pittsburgh's Civil War Carnage
With Allegheny Arsenal Explosion as Background, Consecrated Dust Blends History and Fiction 
Women in Civil War Arsenals Project (Facebook page)
Fox, Arthur B. Pittsburgh During the American Civil War 1860-1865. Firefly Publications. 2009.
Frailey Calland, Mary.  Consecrated Dust: A Novel of the Civil War North. Dog Ear Publishing. October 2011.
Giesberg, Judith Anne. Army at Home: Women and the Civil War on the Northern Home Front. The University of North Carolina Press. September,2009.
Wudarczyk, James. Pittsburgh's Forgotten Allegheny Arsenal.  Closson Press, April 1999.  Reprint October 2009.

~~ I am available to present an hour-long lecture about the Allegheny Arsenal explosion. 
Please email me at historicaldilettante@gmail.com for more information. ~~


  1. Hi, I run the Women in Civil War Arsenals Project page. I went to the commemoration of the explosion this past Sunday. I love your blog on this and it's great that your daughter has an interest in this too. My goal is to write a book of all these women's experiences.

  2. Thanks, Raina! I found your site in the course of doing research for this entry and am very much looking forward to your book!

  3. Sue,
    I'm wondering how much interest there'd be in planning something for the 160th anniversary in 2022? The goal would be to leave a legacy, maybe refurbishment of the Powder Magazine? Off topic a bit, the McKenna girls who died in the explosion were Mayor McKenna's nieces, haven't looked for more connections to mayors, but will do so in the future

  4. Not sure how private designated fundraising can work for city property? It would be a welcome addition to preserving the city's cultural and historical legacy if that building could be preserved as something other than a storage shed and bathroom, though! A small museum, noting the history of the place and honoring those who perished, would be ideal IMO. The most dedicated keepers of the legacy of the Arsenal and surrounding area is the very active Lawrenceville Historical Society. Lately, they've had their eyes on the construction going on in a different part of the former grounds (work which, given the accidental discovery of cannonballs in situ, seems to have proceeded without consistent archaeological site investigation procedures in place. FWIW, I really want one of those cannonballs...) Sue