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Marquette’s day of infamy

A railroad rail was wrapped around a tree at the Powder Mill from the tremendous force of a 1905 explosion. (Photo courtesy of the Marquette Regional History Center)

MARQUETTE — Dec. 7, at least for the United States as a whole, has gone down in history as a “day of infamy.” For the city of Marquette, there’s another December day that may be remembered in much the same way, although for very different reasons.

There haven’t been too many days in Marquette history like Sunday, Dec. 17, 1905. It began on the north side of the city at the Powder Mill, which was an explosives factory that Peter White had started in what is now Tourist Park. It supplied dynamite and other things that went “boom” to mines all around the Upper Peninsula. When it was constructed in 1869, it was put up as far as was then practical from the city itself, just in case there was accident.

And what with explosives being inherently unstable, there were a few accidents over the years. The most serious of which, prior to 1905, may have been an accident in the building where they packed the dynamite in 1881, which killed 11 people. That particular incident could have been much worse; the nitroglycerin building at the complex was within the blast radius. Thankfully, the building was protected by a huge boulder that pushed the shock wave away from the structure.

By 1905, DuPont was running the mill and on that December morning, something went very wrong. An explosion occurred in plant’s mixing room, which at the time contained 1,000 pounds of dynamite and 1,400 pounds of nitroglycerin. The explosion was so strong it wrapped a 35-pound rail around a tree. It threw equipment a half a mile away. It killed five people, seriously injured 10 others and was so strong that it actually broke windows at the Peter White Public Library in downtown Marquette, over three miles away.

That was only the start of the day.

A few hours later, in an entirely unrelated incident, the first Longyear Hall at Northern Michigan University — the first structure ever built for the Northern Normal School — was also the scene of a tragedy. The building was only four years old, and it, along with White Hall, served as the backbone for the rapidly expanding school.

The afternoon of Dec. 17, Longyear Hall suffered major damage when a fire of undetermined origin broke out on the upper floor. By the time firefighters could get it under control, the blaze had damaged major portion of the building and consumed all of the school’s equipment and art work.

Firefighters were able to save most of the school’s fledgling library, but the classrooms in the structure were a loss. Officials at the Normal School said the fire wouldn’t hinder the beginning of the winter semester, which were set to start after the holidays. They said they would find alternative places to hold classes until the damage could be repaired.

Longyear Hall was rebuilt in the next year and served a long and useful life until it was unceremoniously torn down in 1991. The heavily damaged Powder Mill complex faded into history as safer forms of making explosives were developed.

However, the street that heads into what is now Tourist Park — Powder Mill Road — still bears the name of the facility, and it stands as a legacy to one most unique — and explosive — days in Marquette history.

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