“Cumminsville, Oct. 9 – The Hamilton powder company's mills were blown up today at 12:30 o'clock. They are situated one mile from here. Four men were killed and two wounded...
“The cause of the explosion is unknown and the damage cannot now be estimated, though it will be considerable. The sight is a sickening one, and it was with difficulty that some of the bodies were found, and when found, were ripped naked and a long distance off in the bushes with legs and limbs broken and burned black and could scarcely be recognized. Many had a narrow escape. This is the fourth time the mills have had a blow up. The excitement is intense. Spectators were present from a long distance in an almost incredible short time. Glass windows were broken more than a quarter mile off.”
Associated Press bulletin, quoted in the following article:
“A Terrible Explosion : the Hamilton Powder Company's Mills at Kilbride Blown Up and Destroyed”
Spectator. October 9, 1884. (1)
Midway through the noon hour, October 9, 1884, the citizens of Hamilton were startled by the sounds of two loud explosions, one following the other in rapid succession. Many people thought that the shocks, which rattled windows in their frames and shook buildings all over the city, were caused by an earthquake. Less alarmist citizens looked to the sky thinking that a sudden thunderstorm had moved in, but the skies were clar. Those who could look in the direction of the Flamborough Heights, towards Waterdown, were able to see a huge white cloud, followed by an equally huge black cloud, slowly descending the mountain to eventually disperse over the bay :
“Instinctively, the reporter thought of gun powder. It not be that the magazine across the bay had exploded for the shock was not sufficient, nor were the reports loud enough, and it was immediately decided that the Hamilton Powder Company's mills, located near Kilbride and Cumminsville, had exploded. A glance to the north discovered a dark column of smoke rising into the air, and spreading into a sombre cloud. In the west end of the city, the shock was heavier than elsewhere, and many people suddenly deserted the dinner table and ran into the open air to ascertain the cause. The sight of the explosion viewed from this city was terribly grand.”(1)
Constable Walsh was standing in the doorway of his home . While gazing out over the bay, the policeman heard the explosions and saw the white cloud rise in the air to a height of apparently 200 feet :
“It resembled a huge ball, and seemed to hang in the air for several minutes. Then it spread and became thin and from the centre of the white cloud, appearing to rise out of the earth, came a dense black cloud, which rose several hundred feet and spread across the sky. It continued to rise and spread until it resembled a huge thunder cloud.”
Immediately after the clouds from the explosions disappeared, the reporter rushed to the office of Mr. James Watson at James street:
“The reporter stated his errand. 'I know nothing about it yet,' Mr. Watson said in response.
“ ' Was there any insurance on the building?'
“ ' Oh, no; we carried no insurance at all.'
“ ' Was there a heavy stock on hand?'
“ ' I really don't know yet. All I know so far is the bare fact of the explosions.' “
Mr. Watson admitted that there previously had been explosions at the Powder Company's operations near Cumminsville, but that no one had been seriously injured. It was hoped that the explosions had caused no personal injury to either the workers or residents in the vicinity :
“Owing to the time of the explosion, it is not thought that there was anybody on the premises when the blow up occurred. But the frightful shock is rumoured to have carried death and destruction for some distance around.
“The G. N. W. telegraph company tried in vain to get some information about the disaster for the Spectator, and Mr. Black, the manager, said to a reporter that he guessed the operator was at dinner. It was only a few minutes after that, word came from Lowville, the next nearest village., that the Cumminsville telegraph office had been blown to atoms and hat the village was in flames. Just what destruction has been wrought it is next to impossible to say. All sorts of wild rumours are floating around the town, and of course is the chief topic of conversation everywhere. Everybody is eagerly and anxiously asking for information, but authentic information about it was hard to get....
“The Spectator received word of the explosion almost immediately after its occurrence, and the fact was at once announced on its bulletin board, which was quickly surrounded by people who were anxious to learn what the trouble really was. The board has been the centre of a changing group all the afternoon and hundreds of people have been bolting into the telegraph office to ask if anything more had been heard.”
Shortly after 1 p.m., the Spectator dispatched one of its reporters to the scene of the explosion. Arriving just before 3 p. m., the Spectator reporter was the first person from Hamilton to reach the scene of the explosion. Driving along the road to the Powder Company's site, the reporter passed through the three hamlets of Kilbride, Cumminsville and Dakota whch all lay on the road within a few rods of each other:
“Nearly all the inhabitants were out of doors, standing in groups eagerly discussing in subdued voices the particulars of the awful event which had just occurred. The victims of the disaster had all lived in the neighbourhood and were well known to every resident of the three villages.”
Three of the victims' bodies had been taken to Harvey's grist mill near Cumminsville. Two of the bodies, those of Henry Tibbles and William Murray, were viewed by the reporter, and were said to be comparatively uninjured, but the skin had been charred black and the hair had been burned. The third body, that of George Mathews, was in a similar condition, but had the skull fearfully crushed as well. The body of the fourth victim, Hetherington had been taken to his home in the neighbouring village of Kilbride.
Hurrying from the sickening scene at the grist mill, the Spectator reporter made his way to the scene of the explosion.
The Hamilton Powder Company's mills were located about ¾ of a mile from Cumminsville :
“Driving to the place from Hamilton, you turn to the right off the main road which leads to the house of the superintendent and on to the mills. The scenery is lovely along the road. There are thick woods on each hand. On the left stretches a long low ridge covered with verdure, brush and short trees. The house of the superintendent, Mr. Corlett, is several rods from the road, and is also about midway between the road and the scene of the accident. Running through the grounds is a winding stream which widens at places into small ponds, and is crossed by a long, low wooden bridge near Mr. Corlett's house. Yesterday the road was strewn with cinders and splintered bits of wood, half burned, which grew more and more numerous as the fatal spot was approached until two or three hundred yards of the ground was black and the foliage of the trees was ???? and full charred pieces of wood. Emerging from the trees, the visitor came abruptly upon the place where the mills had been. It was a scene of desolation.”
The Hamilton Powder Company was located on 60 acres of land along the Twelve Mile Creek in Nelson township, Halton County, only about four miles from the city of Hamilton. The firm's main business was the manufacture of blasting powder used in railway construction. Notably with the new Canadian Pacific railway under construction, the company could barely keep up with the demand for its explosives. At the time of the disaster, there was a large order for the small size explosive powder, No. 3, which was manufactured by the regrinding of the larger grained powder, No. 1.
The various buildings were located in a thickly wooded valley between low ridges of hills :
“The road leading from the main road runs along the face of the hill to the left, and, looking down from the slight eminence on the scene below, it looked like a great hollow scooped out of the earth by giants, and strewn with cinders and blackened debris. Not a vestige remained of the three wooden buildings which had stood there three or four hours before, except broken and blackened pieces of wood. The buildings had been literally blown into splinters which rained down on the country within a radius of a mile. The mills had been surrounded with tall trees in order that in the event of an explosion in one of them the concussion might be broken before it was conveyed to the others. The foliage of these trees was all blighted, and some of them were blown down and lying against the branches of others which had escaped the force of the explosion. Several trees, the trunks of which were six or eight inches in diameter, were cut through as clean as a twig is cut by a knife, by iron plates driven through them. A hundred yards or so away was a shattered wooden building which threatened every moment to tumble to the ground. Fifty or more persons from the villages and neighbourhood stood gazing with awe struck faces on the desolate spectacle.”
At noon on the 9th of October, 1884, there were about fifteen men employed at the Powder Company's mills who quit work for their lunch break. The mills had been closed in august because of lack of water in the Twelve Mile Creek. When the water power returned, the back orders for fine #3 powder were being pushed, and there was lots of work for the men.
After a hard morning's work, the men went to the watch house to eat their lunch. Fortunately the watch house was located some distance from the three mills which were along the creek. Six of the men got through their lunch quickly and returned to the mills to begin work once more :
“At 12:30, a tremendous explosion shook the earth, followed in a second by another one, and immediately after a third, the most severe of the three made the ground tremble, and shook and rocked the houses like an earthquake. The inhabitants of the three villages knew well the cause of the explosions. They rushed from their quivering houses and gazed with blanched faces in the direction of the mills. Fortunately, nobody was seriously hurt by the debris which fell as thick as hail for hundreds of yards around. Whole timbers were carried through the air as if they had been twigs, and pieces of charred wood several pounds in weight were picked up a mile away. The force of the explosions may be learned from the fact that an iron shaft weighing 400 pounds was hurled a distance of a quarter mile. The debris in the immediate vicinity of the explosion was burning fiercely when the other workmen and the villagers arrived, but it was speedily extinguished.”
After the bodies were all located, all but one of the corpses were taken into the village grist mill :
“The children of the dead men wandered about the village or stood near the large grist mill where the bodies of their fathers lay, and gazed wistfully towards the door through which they were not allowed to pass. Some sat on the ground sobbing aloud. The wives of the men, however, hid their grief at home.”
The major Hamilton Evening Times report on the disaster appeared the following day. The Times reporter was profoundly distressed by what he encountered during his visit to the scene of the tragedy:
“Cumminsville was a sorrow-stricken village yesterday. The terrible calamity that had devastated the homes of four of its inhabitants was so unexpected and so awful in its results that the face of everyman was blanched and the eyes of every woman were red with weeping over the owes of their neighbors. The powder mills had furnished employment for the support of many a home in the village in the long number of years the mills had ground out the deadly stuff which created such havoc yesterday, and the feeling of indifference to the dangerous employment had grown so that the works were regarded very much as a foundry or a mill would be looked on in Hamilton.”
“The Valley of Death : A Visit to the Ruins of the Exploded Powder Mills:
Evening Times October 10, 1884.
The scene of the explosions was almost too much for the normally articulate reporter to adequately picture for his readers:
“It lasted but a moment, and no man can faithfully describe it. The great timbers lodged in the tall trees, the complete upheaval of acres of stout trees and the utter disappearance of the three mills told the tale no pen could describe. A tree twelve inches in diameter was cut in two by a flying piece of steel plate from the press as clean as by a saw. Timbers twenty feet long and a foot square were held in the branches of the trees, and pieces of clothing fluttering from the tree tops told of the awful flight through the air of missing men.
“The roar of the exploding mills and the crash of flying timbers and flying machinery through the woods were followed by a dead silence. The white clouds of smoke that shot up with a flash were followed by a dark pall of thick, heavy smoke, which hung over the valley for hours. Then the debris took fire. The fire was put out by the mill hands and the neighbours, while the wives and children of the missing men added the cries to the general confusion and terror of the scene.
“The little creek which supplied the power for the works bubbled yesterday past the charred timbers and blackened trees, just as it did before, but the mills had disappeared, and the men who worked then were daed or dying.”
As the Hamilton Times was an evening paper appearing much later in the day than the Spectator, the man from the Times had more time to conduct interview to learn about the Hamilton Powder Mills' operations and the men who worked there :
“The men knew their danger, and yesterday, it was said that several of them had remonstrated with Superintendent Corlett. 'Poor Hetherington!' said one of the men yesterday. 'He told Mr. Corlett yesterday that 80 barrels of stuff was enough to run through in a day.'
“ 'What was done about it?'
“ 'Poor Bill was told that others could be got to do the work if it did not suit him. They sent up for Jack Greenless to take his job, but Bill went to work. Tonight his mother's heart is broken over his death. He never knew what happened to him.'
Superintendent Corlett provided some information on the nature of the operations of the Hamilton Powder Company :
“ ' I have been here twenty-nine years, and the mills have blown up – or the wheel house has – five times in that period. There was never any loss of life before, nor was anybody seriously injured. All was going well when I left the works at a quarter to twelve. The press was calculated to be perfectly safe, and the wheel house is only part of the works that ever blew up before this. The last explosion was in June, 1881. I can't, nor can any other person, tell how the accident happened.' ”
Many the workers strongly disagreed with the superintendent:
“ ' The responsibility can be easily fixed,' said one. “The capacity of these mills when run properly, and so that time is allowed for the proper care of the machinery, is 80 barrels of material a day, which equals an output of 240 kegs of powder daily. This is green, or new, powder, which is damp in the working, and consequently less dangerous than dry stuff. Lately there has been orders to grind down 10,000 kegs of No. 1 powder – the largest size – to No. 3. Of course, this is more dangerous than working on new powder, for the manufactured powder is dry and dusty. You would suppose that they would run slow and careful on this stuff, but they didn't. If they had, there would have been no need of coroners or reporters here today. We all knew it was dangerous, and I believe Amos Barnes, the Black Boss, remonstrated with the Superintendent that the mills were running too hard and that it was becoming dangerous. Mr. Corlett told him that the company kept telegraphing him and hurrying him up, and the work had to be done. There was no time to oil up or get the machinery in order, and something had to give before long.' ”
“ ' I blame ourselves,' said another powder maker. 'We knew what chances we were taking, and we should have told Corlett that this had to be settled and eighty barrels was all we could or would run.'
“ ' Yes,' interrupted, 'and we would have been told as the Black Boss told Hetherington that others could be found to do our work. The pay is not big, but it came regular every month, and was steady work so long as there was water to run the wheels, and none of us have much money to lay back if we get out of the mills. I tell you you that this accident would never have happened if the men and the mills hadn't been crowded till nothing could stand the strain. The machinery was run twice as fast as it ought to be, and there were six of us crackers where the work used to be done by two men. The machines were started at daylight and run right along. The mills were full of dust from the old dry powder and the oil holes were plugged with particles. No time was allowed to clean these out, and there is no doubt among the men that the crash was the result of the hustling that was going on since Saturday.”