Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Powell Squib Factory Disaster

Memorial for  the victims of the
Powell Squib Factory Disaster
Shawnee Cemetery, Plymouth
Resting on the hills overlooking Plymouth and the Wyoming Valley is the Shawnee Cemetery. Named in honor of the Shawnee Indians who once lived on the flats along the Susquehanna River, this sacred spot is the final resting place of many of the town’s residents.

Founded in 1870, Shawnee Cemetery has veterans from the Revolution to Vietnam resting on its thirteen and a half acres. Among those resting here is US Congressman Stanley Davenport and some of the victims of one of the most infamous mining disasters in Pennsylvania’s history: the Avondale Mine Collapse — a disaster that had a death toll of 110 miners; four of the deceased are buried here. I imagine if I searched through the cemetery records I would find more victims of mining accidents and disasters; after all, Plymouth grew from the mining of anthracite coal. But today I was seeking a memorial to another disaster.

After navigating the maze of streets I finally arrived at the Shawnee Cemetery located on the western edge of Plymouth. For years the cemetery had been forgotten and neglected but thankfully in recent years volunteers have cleaned up the grounds returning the cemetery to its former glory.

Parking near the Civil War plot I could see the large marker I was searching for standing a couple yards away. I walked down the roadway to the small plot of land marked by a memorial of white bronze. I paused at the opening in the iron fence that surrounded the memorial to pay my respects to the ten people buried here before stepping onto this sacred piece of land. The monument was in memory of a mining-related disaster that rocked the community of Plymouth.

Walking around the memorial, I quietly whispered each of the names listed on three of the four sides of the memorial. The victims, most of whom were young girls between the ages of fifteen and twenty-two, worked at the Powell Squib Factory. On February 25, 1889, they would become victims of a massive explosion that rattled dishes and knocked pictures off the walls of the community.

The factory was owned by John Powell and it produced squibs, which are paper straws filled with black powder with fuses at each end (in many cases, squibs are mistakenly referred to as fuses). Squibs were used in helping to break up coal. Holes were drilled into the wall of coal and squibs would be placed in these holes and lit. The resulting small explosions would break up the coal.

One side of the memorial
Mary, Esther, Ruth, and Maggie
The job of producing the squibs was a dangerous one and sadly it was a job that was often done by teenage girls as a means of providing family income. Creating squibs meant that the girls were working among kegs of black powder and boxes of prepared squibs. These items were often stored in the basement of the factory with the girls working on the floor above.

Normally the kegs of black powder were stored in a magazine located about one hundred yards away from the main factory. It is believed that on the day of the disaster, due to the size of the explosion, there were more kegs than normal being stored in the basement of the factory.

A second danger in making squibs was working near an open flame. In order to provide heat for the workers, there were fires burning within the factory. The Powell Squib Factory had three stoves burning to provide heat for the girls.

These two hazards were bad enough, but the means of disposing squibs that did not meet the standard (or faulty ones) usually was done by tossing them into one of the fires. Often workers would humor themselves by tossing the faulty squibs into the fire so they could witness the small explosions.

The Powell Squib Factory had been erected near the mouth of the Gaylord Mine. (The Gaylord Mine would suffer its own disaster in 1894. On February 13, the roof collapsed, claiming the lives of thirteen miners, six of whom are buried in Shawnee Cemetery.)

The Powell Squib Factory normally had eighty to ninety girls working but on the fateful day of February 25 only eleven girls, plus the foreman, were present. There were two factors that kept the death total from being greater than it was. First, many of the girls had been furloughed because one of the machines used to produce squibs was broken. At the time of the disaster the factory only had forty girls employed.

A second factor that saved a lot of the girls who were still working was the disaster occurred at lunchtime. It was common for the majority of the girls to return home and eat lunch with their family. Had the explosion happened ten or fifteen minutes later, the disaster would have claimed more lives.

One side of the memorial
Mary, Kate, Jane, and Hettie
On February 25, 1889, shortly before one in the afternoon, the town of Plymouth would be shaken by a deafening explosion. The blast blew the roof off of the Powell Squib Factory (reports state it lifted five feet into the air before it came crashing down) and fire enveloped the remains of the building. Within ten minutes of the initial explosion the building had vanished into a pile of ash.

In the moments after the explosion, miners rushed out of the Gaylord Mine Shaft in an attempt to rescue those within the factory, but were driven back by the flames. Firemen arrived within minutes but stood helpless because the hoses could not reach the nearest water source.

In the aftermath of the disaster, the bodies of ten girls were discovered. Only one, Margaret “Maggie” Lynch, was able to be identified and that was only due to the clothing she was wearing. Maggie was not buried with the other victims in the in Shawnee Cemetery. Her family took her remains to Larksville and had her buried in St. Vincent’s Cemetery. The memorial in Shawnee Cemetery makes no mention of Maggie.

Only one person would briefly survive the disaster. George Reese, who was the foreman on duty, was thrown out of the building by the blast. Reese would initially blame the disaster on a box of squibs that spontaneously combusted. He would quickly change his story blaming Katie Jones for the disaster. Reese claimed that Jones and another girl had been examining the squibs and were tossing the defective ones into the fire. In the process of sorting through the squibs she had accidentally tossed a live one into the stove and the resulting spark set the nearby lot of squibs on fire. This caused a series of explosions leading up to the blast that destroyed the factory.

Shortly before his death, Reese changed his story and confessed that he had been smoking in the basement. A spark from his pipe ignited the kegs of black powder stored there causing the massive explosion. His body would join the other victims buried in the plot in Shawnee Cemetery.

I shuddered as I stood there. So many young lives lost in the violent explosion. I quietly whispered each name before I left them resting overlooking the town they once called home, in the peace and silence of the cemetery.

A list of the victims of the Powell Squib Factory disaster
Maggie Lynch (age 21)
Katie Jones (age 20)
Hettie Jones (age 16)
Gladys Reese (age 15)
Mary Walters (age 17)
Maggie Richards (age 17)
Mary A. Lake (age 17)
Ruth Powell (age 19)
Ester Powell (age 22)
Jane Ann Thomas (age 16)
Charlotte Humphries (age 18)
George Reese (age 41)

Finding the memorial is easier than finding the cemetery, which is located on West Mountain Road. Entering into the cemetery, the Civil War plot is immediately in front of you. The memorial for the victims of the disaster is just to the left of the Civil War plot. As with all cemeteries, please be respectful if you choose to visit.

One side of the memorial
Gladys and George
A note about the deceased: I have found a number of lists that include a Ruth Walters as a victim. While initial reports have her name listed, she disappears out of the newspaper articles almost immediately. I believe that either she was found alive or the name was a misprint for Ruth Powell.

Ruth and Ester Powell were sisters. They were the nieces of the factory owner, John Powell.

Gladys Reese was the daughter of foreman George Reese.

There seems to be a debate about the final resting place of Charlotte Humphries, which is also spelled Humphreys in some of the newspaper articles. All the early newspaper articles list Charlotte as a victim of the disaster. Reading the names listed on the memorial, she (like Maggie Lynch) is not listed on the memorial. The question arises of her burial location. Some accounts have her listed as being buried with the other girls, but most accounts state she was not buried in Shawnee Cemetery. I have not read any place that her remains had been identified and buried in a family plot.  I would like to think she was buried with the other victims, but her final resting place remains a mystery to me at this time.

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