Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on March 1, 2017.

The Earth Shook

The 1917 Eddystone ammunition disaster—Eddystone, Pennsylvana


Was it an accident or a planned attack?

That was the question in the days following a series of explosions at the Eddystone Ammunition Corporation’s loading and inspecting plant in Eddystone, Pennsylvania. The explosions occurred on April 10, 1917, four days after the United States’ entry into World War I, and speculation was that the disaster was the work of German saboteurs.

The results were devastating. A sudden ignition of black powder set off a chain of explosions inside the plant, which housed about 350 workers at the time. Heavy cans of black powder began to detonate, sending shards of deadly shrapnel flying through the building. Explosions caused the roof to collapse as fire raged, and workers jumped from windows in desperate bids to survive, many with their clothing in flames. Firefighters from six nearby communities, including Philadelphia, responded to the incident, and many were injured as they charged toward the smoldering plant. One firefighter’s leg was shot off by shrapnel.

A total of 50 successive explosions leveled the structure and reportedly shook the ground as far as 10 miles away. More than 130 workers, mostly young women and girls, were killed, and hundreds more were injured. More than 50 bodies were never identified. “The bodies of many young women were heaped in the middle of the building, while others were blown through the roof,” one survivor told The New York Times. Another employee told the newspaper that he believed he only survived because enough dead bodies had piled on top of him to form a protective barrier.

The Eddystone Ammunition Corporation had been contracted to make artillery shells for the Russian government. Immediately following the incident, Eddystone officials told the press they were certain it was not an accident but a planned attack. “We are unable to account for it in any other way than the act of some maliciously inclined person or persons,” Samuel M. Vauclain, the company’s president, said. Additionally, a New Jersey woman claimed to have found a note at a Philadelphia train station that read, “All ready to blow up Eddystone. Send us help.”

Under the theory that German spies were responsible, dozens of people were arrested. But a second theory emerged that placed the blame on faulty equipment in the factory, one supported by workers who told investigators that the devices used to shake black powder into the shells had been malfunctioning for some time. In his 1976 book Darkest Hours: A Narrative Encyclopedia of Worldwide Disasters From Ancient Times to the Present, Jay Robert Nash asserts that faulty equipment caused the blasts. But doubts remain. The Eddy-stone Police Department’s website says the mystery was never solved, citing the possibility of German or Russian involvement.

The plant reopened soon after the blasts, and 900 young women and girls reportedly lined up to take jobs. Workers of German heritage, however, were turned away.

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: United States Library of Congress