Above: A Dupont Powder Mill Drying House explosion/fire from 1914 / Hagley Museum and Library
In 1847 Dupont’s Powder Mill was in the midst of supplying gunpowder to the US Government, then midway through the Mexican-American War.
Eleuthere Ireene du Pont de Nemours’ Brandywine Valley mill near Wilmington had been in business already for 45 years, and had supplied the powder for the War of 1812.
The powder business was inherently dangerous. Explosions were always a threat. “The cause of trouble at a powder-mill is seldom known; it comes too quickly, and usually leaves no witness,” reported Cleveland Moffett in ‘Careers of Danger and Daring.’
Such was the case on April 14, 1847.
“A nail overlooked in a workman’s heel may have done the harm by striking a stone, though of course there is an imperative rule that all footgear made with nails be left outside the walls; or a heavy box slid along the wooden floor may have brought a flash out of the dry timbers.
“At any rate, the flash came, and the blaze followed on it so swiftly that the building was wrapped in fire before men inside could reach the door, and they presently burst out blazing themselves, for their clothing, as it must be, was sifted through with explosive dust. Indeed, it is always true in fires at powder-mills that the workmen themselves are a serious menace to the buildings by reason of their own inflammability.”
The tragedy made national news. “Dupont’s Powder Mill establishment exploded this morning at 6 o’clock, killing 18 persons, and horribly mutilating many more, the limbs of whom were scattered in all directions,” said the Carroll Free Press in Carrollton, OH. “There were five thousand pounds exploded, and the noise was like that of an earthquake.”
“The concussion was felt in Philadelphia, a distance of 30 miles,” added the Milwaukee Daily Sentinel. “The packing house and drying house were destroyed.”
How were the Duponts affected? Charles Dupont, owner of the DuPont, Bauday & Co. wool manufacturers, dwelt with his wife Ann across the Brandywine River from the DuPont powder mills.
Their home “Louviers” was an expansive, forested estate. But Ann’s eyewitness account of that April morning reminds us that they and other DuPont families were surrounded by a major industrial area despite the cushion of their properties. For all their wealth, they were not immune from major explosions.
Ann wrote to her cousin Helen Davis Ruff on April 15: “…yesterday morning, about six o’clock, we had the most awful explosion of the powder mills. I was not up. Mr. DuPont had just risen. To describe the horror of the scene would be impossible. It was a bright morning, one of those days when nature seems to be full of smiles.
“I was debating whether I would lose in sleep these sweet hours, or get up; in an instant, without the slightest warning, there came a shock that seemed so terrific in its nature that I could only compare it to the meeting of heaven and earth, it appeared not to be local but a crash of the world, our window sashes, chairs, ceiling all in the twinkling of an eye laid prostrate, the concussion, the breaking of glass, and furniture, the horrid reports of the powder, the flash and the sudden pressure of the atmosphere, with the bursting of the doors, all formed a combination of horrors that can only be surpassed by that awful day we have all yet to see.
“After the first instant of the explosion I looked up and found my husband pale and bleeding; it was, however, only a scratch from a piece of broken glass; he was pale from fear of his family on the other side [of the Brandywine River.]
“He knew not who was spared, yet a kind of Providence saved them all, though their houses are dreadfully shattered. We have but one habitable room and that is made so by carpets and blankets nailed to the windows and I have written this letter at 11 o’clock in the day by candlelight.
“The shrieks of the wives and children so soon made widows and orphans rose in sad succession to the preceding horror, human heads, arms and feet were found on that peaceful looking bank of the Brandywine where you and I have walked.” [from ‘A calendar of Ridgely family letters, 1742-1899’].
The 1847 explosion wasn’t Dupont’s only 19th century powder mill disaster, but it was the era’s second most deadly. An 1818 explosion had killed 34 people, and later on an 1890 explosion took the lives of 12.