The day the earth shook in Ashburn

The railroad depot at Ashburn is pictured in this undated photo. Two trains each day brought workers to and from the Hercules Powder Plant.
By Brent Engel
For The Courier-Post
Posted: Nov. 26, 2019 3:00 pm

Editor's note: Nov. 23 was the anniversary of the event described in the following story contributed by award-winning Louisiana journalist, author and public relations professional Brent Engel. It first appeared in his 2015 book "One More Thing." Engel plans to publish a new collection of Pike County history stories shortly.

ASHBURN, Mo. | Dense woods and majestic bluffs belie the horrific Thanksgiving Eve blast that once rocked Ashburn.

It wasn't the first, or the last, accident at the Hercules Powder Works, but it certainly was one of the most dramatic. The gruesome aftermath drew national attention.

At 7:55 a.m. on Nov. 23, 1898, the packing house at the plant a mile north of town blew up, killing six men. Six others were injured by debris and many homes were damaged.

The concussion was felt as much as 25 miles away, shattering windows, shaking buildings and prompting fears that an earthquake had struck.

“There was a terrific roar and the walls and the roof of the packing house were thrown into the air as though shot from a volcano,” The Associated Press reported. “The employees were thrown into the air by the force of the explosion, and then their bruised, battered and torn bodies fell back amid the wreck and burning debris.”

Many nearby homes were hit, including one a half-mile away that was destroyed when “a huge mass of brick and mortar” fell upon it, the news service said. At any time, the plant stored up to 10,000 pounds of blasting powder.

“There is always some loose powder on the floor of the packing room, and it is supposed that something was dropped upon it that caused it to explode,” theorized the Kansas City Journal. “The exact cause of the explosion will never be known, as all the men in the packing house at the time were blown to atoms.”

The dead, all of them single, were identified as William Wilson, the foreman and son of the plant manager; Albert Miller of Hannibal; D.M. Smith of Louisiana; and William Chapelston and Jack Hollinger of Ashburn. Alfred Wenzel's hometown was not listed, but he was laid to rest in Hannibal.

In grisly detail, newspapers reported on the hours after the blast.

“During the day, the men were engaged with buckets gathering up such bits of flesh and bone as they could find,” one reported. “A piece of spinal column was found a half-a-mile from the scene of the explosion.”

The disaster was particularly devastating because Ashburn was a close-knit community, founded in 1819 and named for Kentucky immigrant George T. Ashburn. At the time of the explosion, there were more than 300 residents, compared with only about 50 today.

The powder plant was built by DuPont in 1892. It produced dynamite for the mining and construction industries, and for the government. Remnants of buildings remain in the woods today.

Authorities speculated that the 1898 disaster might have been caused by carelessness because, as one paper reported, the plant was operating “day and night on orders from” the Navy. The financial loss eventually was pegged at $100,000 — a little over $3 million now.

Despite the loss of his son, records show the elder William Wilson continued as superintendent of the plant at least until 1905.

After 1898, potentially-dangerous buildings were separated in nearby valleys, but accidents still happened. One man died and five were injured in a powder warehouse explosion in December 1909. In June 1915, four men were killed when 200 pounds of nitroglycerin ignited. A non-lethal explosion in September 1903 “shattered the windows in a passing train and caused several women passengers to faint,” according to the Mexico Message.

After a five-year anti-trust battle, a federal court in June 1912 ordered DuPont to divest. The company kept its main business, but jettisoned Hercules Powder and Atlas Powder. Kentucky-based Ashland Inc. bought Hercules in 2008.

DuPont operated the Ashburn facility until 1932. Six years later, the company donated the 1,118-acre site to the Missouri Conservation Commission, which expanded it by 200 acres and created the DuPont Reservation Conservation Area.

The Missouri Conservation Department still oversees it, and visitors today can enjoy hunting, fishing, hiking and bird-watching in a secluded setting.

The loudest sounds now are the freight trains that rumble through the valley or the motorcycles that stop at the bluff-top overlook. A boat access and primitive campground can be found along the Mississippi River portion of the site.




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