Tuesday, September 01, 2020

'Blown out of existence': The 1862 Hazard Powder Co. disaster

A circa-1910 postcard view of Powder Hollow in Hazardville, Conn., where Augustus Hazard produced gunpowder during the Civil War. (Dexter Photo | Public domain)
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On the morning of July 24, 1862, Hartford Daily Courant readers found an interesting mix of news in the state's leading newspaper:

A short article on cantankerous General Henry Halleck's appointment as commander in chief of all Federal land forces; a report from Virginia of tendered resignations of "many officers" in the beleaguered Army of the Potomac; and closer to home, the story of "a rum-crazy individual" who hopped off a train downtown, walloped a policeman on Asylum Street, and promptly was tossed into jail.

By January 1864, Augustus Hazard's Connecticut 
mills were producing 12,500 pounds
 of gunpowder a day.
But the most compelling news in the Courant originated from aptly named Hazardville, Conn., about 20 miles north of Hartford. At about 3 p.m. the previous day, five massive blasts rocked the Hazard Powder Co. mills, killing 10 people, nine of them employees. Among the dead was a man taking a bath and another walking his mule. "Blown out of existence," the Courant described victims of the disaster -- the second such castastrophe at a Northern munitions factory that year.

The company was owned by 60-year-old Augustus George Hazard, a politically well-connected businessman whose friendship with Confederate president Jefferson Davis raised eyebrows in the North. Colonel Hazard's mills produced thousands of tons gunpowder for the Federal war effort -- more than any Northern company except one. Hazard's gunpowder was even used in the pummeling of Fort Sumter by Rebel gunners on April 12, 1861 -- the opening salvos of the war.

Born in Rhode Island in 1802, Hazard was the son of a sea captain. After his family moved to Connecticut, Augustus worked on a farm in Columbia there until he was 15, learned the trade of house painting, and eventually settled in Savannah, Ga, where he became a dealer in paints and oils. While in his adopted state, Hazard may have even joined the Georgia militia, earning the rank of colonel -- a title that stuck with him the rest of his life. Highly successful, he became part-owner of a coastal shipping company that did a brisk business between New York and Savannah. The Colonel was especially interested in one product: gunpowder.

A circa-1909 image of Augustus Hazard's mansion in Enfield, Conn., miles from Hazardville.
 The mansion was destroyed in a fire in 1969 when it served as an inn. 
(Enfield Public Library | CLICK ON ALL IMAGES TO ENLARGE.)
By 1843, Hazard had assumed full ownership of a gunpowder company in Enfield, Conn., naming himself president and general manager. "Shrewd, energetic" and with deep interest in politics, the ardent Democrat became one of the state's wealthiest men. Hazard and his wife, Salome, settled in Enfield, where he raised a family and built a mansion on Enfield Street, a few miles from his rapidly growing company. In Enfield, the couple entertained such notables as gunmaker Samuel Colt, statesmen and lawyer Daniel Webster and Davis, the U.S. Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce from 1853-57.

As U.S. Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis visited
Augustus Hazard in Connecticut. He later became

 president of the Confederacy. (National Archives)
When the czar of Russia needed gunpowder during the Crimean War in 1845, he turned to Hazard and the leading U.S. supplier., the E.I. duPont mills in Wilmington, Del. In 1849, Hazard made a mint supplying miners with gunpowder in the California Gold Rush.

In the late 1840s, the makers of Magical Pain Extractor used the well-known gunpowder producer as an endorser for their product, which supposedly cured sore throats, ulcers, hemorrhoids and ringworm and soothed the debilitating effects of barber's itch, frosted toes and even burns. Hazard claimed Magical Pain Extractor "saved the life and cured a person dreadfully burnt by a powder mill explosion."

By the outbreak of the Civil War, the sprawling Hazard Powder Co. in Enfield covered over 400 acres and included massive infastructure: rolling and granulating mills, woodworking, ironworking and machine shops, packing houses, magazines, hydraulic presses and more. In all, there were nearly 125 buildings.

Power to operate the mills' 25 water wheels and three stream engines came from the nearby Scantic River. Canals carried water to the complex, where Hazard also made gun cartridges and fireworks. In a vote of employees in the industrial village, the factory zone was even named "Hazardville" in the Colonel's honor.


Know more about Hazard Powder Co. explosion? Email me at jbankstx@comcast.net


Work at Hazard's company was difficult and often dangerous. In April 1855, Hazard's eldest son, 23-year-old Horace, was mortally wounded by a gunpowder explosion at his father's mill. Later that year, a wagonload of powder exploded, killing a teamster and his two horses, injuring a young girl, and damaging the roof of a powder mill. The next year, three workers, horribly burned in an explosion, died. And in September 1858, the superintendent and three workmen were instantly killed in another blast.

The company mandated strict safety rules. Fearful of sparks setting off gunpowder, Hazard banned iron and steel tools. For obvious reasons, so were pipes and matches. Workers wore shoes made with wooden pegs instead of iron nails. Large, stone blast walls separated buildings. Even Hazard, though, couldn't plan for unexpected mischief by Mother Nature: In late April 1861, a lightning strike on kegs of powder produced an explosion heard as far away as Hartford. No one, thankfully, was injured.

A bird's-eye illustration of the sprawling Hazardville, Conn., complex in 1880.
(Office of the State Historian and CTHumanties)
During the Civil War, Augustus Hazard advertised in the Hartford Daily Courant for workers.
But Hazard's company suffered its deadliest day in late July 1862. In the immediate vicinity of the mills, the explosions of tons of gunpowder produced an otherworldy landscape of dead cows and horses, uprooted trees, toppled fences and acres of grass that looked "as if heavy rollers had passed over it."

Windows were shattered and roofs damaged at houses at least two miles away. Ten miles away, in Springfield, Mass., "houses were jarred as if by an earthquake." The rumble of the explosions was "distinctly heard" as far as Northhampton and West Brookfield, Mass., roughly 50 miles distant.

Marker in Old Hazardville (Conn.) Cemetery
for 40-year-old Arthur Beach, who was "blown
  to atoms" with five others in the press room 

at the Hazard Powder Co. (Find A Grave)
Thousands came to view the horrific scene. "One of the most appalling calamities that has occurred in this vicinity for many years," the Boston Journal reported. The cause of the blast was a "mystery," newspapers said, and probably never would be known because all the witnesses were dead.

The human toll, of course, was heart-rending. James Beach, who worked in the fireworks building, was washing in a brook after his shift when blasts rocked the grounds. The 28-year-old's body was discovered in the water with a heavy rock upon it. Beach had started work at the company only days earlier.

The only remains found of the six men who worked in the 20-by-30-foot press room, where the disaster probably originated, was a detached foot discovered about a quarter-mile from the blast zone. Arthur Beach, James' 40-year-old brother and the married father of seven children, worked there. So did luckless Patrick Fallon, who was on his first day on the job, and Henry Clark, a married father of five. Leno Monsean, another press room victim, had only recently been married.

Crossing a bridge over a nearby stream with his mule, a man was nearly obliterated by the force of a blast. The animal was "torn into two parts," the Courant reported, "one half being thrown across the stream and the other into a field several hundred feet distant."


'Human gore': More on deadly Civil War explosions on my blog


The initial explosion almost instantaneously triggered four more at surrounding buildings. Tossed into the air by a blast, a timber or large piece of iron struck Celia Smith, fracturing her skull and mortally wounding her. The niece of a grocer on Main Street in Enfield died hours later. To escape injury, Smith's panic-stricken colleagues in the cartridge-making building burst through doors and leaped through windows.

James Beach worked in the Hazard Powder Co.
fireworks building. He was bathing in a stream
when he was killed in the explosion on July 23, 1862.
He's buried in Old Hazardville Cemetery

 near his brother, Arthur, who also
was killed that day. (Find A Grave)
The catrastrophe could have been much worse. A building packed with coarse, unground gunpowder was damaged, but it didn't explode. Enough gunpowder was in another building, the Courant reported, "to have destroyed the whole village" if it had exploded.

"It is remarkable," the newspaper wrote, "that there were no more lives lost."

En route home via train from New York, Hazard received word of the disaster at a stop in Berlin, Conn. His financial losses were estimated at $15,000 -- $12,000 for the roughly 10 tons of gunpowder that exploded, $3,000 for five wooden buildings destroyed. But that was merely a dent in Hazard's booming business.

"The loss will not interfere with the operations of the company," the Courant reported, "as there are 75 mills left."

Hazard began re-building almost immediately. Orders for the Federal Army would be filled on time. By January 1864, the Hazard Powder Co. was producing 12,500 pounds of gunpowder daily, nearly a quarter of the Union total.


-- Have something to add, correct? E-mail me at jbankstx@comcast.net


SOURCES


-- Boston Journal, July 24, 1862.
-- Brooklyn Evening Star, Dec. 5, 1855.
-- Enfield (Conn.) Historical Society.
-- Find A Grave.
-- Hartford Daily Courant, Sept. 17, 1858, April 25, 1861, July 24, 25, 1862.
-- The Memorial History of Hartford County Connecticut 1633-1884, edited by J. Hammond Trumbull, Boston, Edward L. Osgood Publisher, 1886.
-- The New York Evening Post, March 22, 1849.
-- The Times-Picayune, New Orleans, July 25, 1856.


Connecticut-based reseacher Dan Hayden contributed to this post.

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