Negaunee’s nitro-glycerine tragedy

Capt. Henry Merry is seen. (Photo courtesy of the Marquette Regional History Center)

A few minutes before 10 o’clock on the morning of Jan. 2, 1878, residents of Marquette heard the sharp crack of an explosion somewhere off to the west. At the same time, workers at the Sands switch of the Chicago & Northwestern Railway heard an explosion and felt the ground tremble beneath their feet. To them, the sound seemed to come from the general direction of Negaunee, 10 miles distant.

Three hundred feet underground in the Pioneer Mine near Negaunee, men were knocked off their feet by a violent tremor. Workers in the upper levels of the mine staggered and stumbled, clutching at anything within reach to keep from being thrown down. Miners were accustomed to the sound and shock waves of blasting in their daily work, but this far exceeded anything they had ever experienced.

Instinctively, the looked upward. Were they being entombed by a massive cave-in, the collapse of a stope or an earthquake? After the tremor subsided, the miners were relieved to find that their workplace was intact. The tremendous jolt, whatever its cause, had not originated in the mine. The underground workers speculated about what might have caused it.

At least two people knew immediately what had happened. Capt. Henry Merry, local agent of the Jackson Iron Company, had been walking along the railroad track west of Negaunee, when he noticed three men loading cans of nitro-glycerine into a boxcar. Hearing clangs and clatters from within the car and seeing that the men were handling the explosive material carelessly, he hurried away. He had gone less than a hundred yards when the force of the blast threw him violently to the ground. He survived with minor injuries only because there happened to be a hillock between him and the explosion.

The other person who knew at once what had happened was also felled, but not by concussion. C.M. Wheeler, manager of the Lake Shore Nitro-Glycerine Company, knew that 4,800 pounds of high explosives from his factory were being loaded into a railroad car for delivery to the Republic Mine. The car was west of town, about a half mile from where he was standing at the C&NW depot in downtown Negaunee. His brother and his brother’s son were members of the loading crew. When Wheeler heard the explosion, he collapsed in a dead faint.

The explosion and its aftermath were described in the Negaunee section of the Jan. 5, 1878, Marquette Mining Journal under the headline, TERRIBLE CATASTROPHE. The paper reported, “There was a loud, quick report, as though lightning had struck in a thousand places at once. Horses took fright and ran, women and children rushed screaming into the streets and men stood rooted to their places, unable to comprehend what had happened. It was soon realized that a tremendous explosion had occurred. To the west of the city a thick cloud of smoke was seen to rise, and thither rushed an anxious and excited crowd.”

The scene of the blast was “frightening and sickening.” Smoke and fumes swirled around a hole twenty-five feet in diameter and five feet deep. Steel rails were wrenched from the ties to which they had been spiked and flung aside. Ties were reduced to slivers. The snow was covered with broken wheels, axels, boiler tubes, twisted steel, splintered boards, and other large pieces of wreckage, along with thousands of smaller fragments of metal and wood.

Engineer William Myers, fireman Jeremiah Foley, and brakemen Charles Miller and William Spellman had congregated in the locomotive cab while waiting for the loaders to finish their work. What was left of the train crew was found in the cab, although that part of the locomotive had been thrown more than a hundred feet from the railroad track. As for the boxcar, one observer said, “There wasn’t enough left of the car timbers to kindle a fire.” A diligent search for nitro-glycerine loaders Seneca Wheeler, Walter Wheeler and Ira Hinkley turned up only a few unidentifiable scraps of flesh and charred bone.

Back in Negaunee, people excitedly swapped facts and rumors from which the truth eventually emerged. The upper Jackson location had suffered the most severe damage. A reporter noted, “Windows, doors, ceilings, furniture, and dishes in all the homes were broken and strewn about in great confusion, while women and children were lifted from their feet and hurled among the rubbish. The location was, in fact, a general wreck.”

Along Iron Street in Negaunee, in store after store, windows were broken. Plaster and lath fell from the ceilings in the headquarters of the Iron Cliffs Company onto the heads of office workers. They rushed outside thinking the building was about to collapse. The entire front of L.D. Cyr’s drugstore was demolished. His inventory of patent medicines also proved to be susceptible to the shock wave. Hundreds of bottles tumbled from the shelves and crashed to the flood. Kirkwood’s Pharmacy was similarly damaged but to a lesser extent.

The newspaper named several people who had been treated for injuries, but no one complained of anything more serious than cuts and bruises. This is remarkable considering the magnitude of the blast but is attributable in large part to the explosion occurring in an open area well beyond the city limits.

Before the smoke cloud cleared, hundreds of people who were grateful to have escaped death and serious injury on that January morning found themselves facing another calamity. Frigid air was pouring into their homes, through openings where windows had been. Cozy parlors and kitchens were being transformed into iceboxes. Miners were sent home early so they could weatherproof their homes. If glass or boards couldn’t be found, crates, rugs, blankets, quilts, pillows, and other household goods were temporarily shoved into the breaches.

Window glass was in short supply, for most of the glass that had been on the racks in Negaunee hardware stores ended up being shoveled off the floor and into carts for disposal. Thanks to the modern miracle of telegraphy, trains began bringing supplies of glass to Negaunee from neighboring towns before the sun went down that night.

Two weeks after the explosion, Negaunee coroner Phillip Kirkwood convened an inquest “to inquire on behalf of the people of this state in what manner and by what means” the seven men had lost their lives. Capt. Merry testified that he saw the three loaders handling the cans very carelessly, and that he heard the cans rattle as they were stored in the boxcar. Another witness, John Callaghan, told jurors that he saw young Walter Wheeler kick one of the cans to show that nitro-glycerine was not as dangerous as some claimed it to be.

After hearing this and other testimony, members of the coroner’s jour rendered their verdict. The explosion, they said, was caused by careless and negligent handling of the explosive material by employees of the Lake Shore Nitro-Glycerine Company. The jury also issued a supplementary verdict censuring the company for allowing its employees to handle the explosives carelessly. Forty-one people filed lawsuits against the explosives manufacturer. The claim of one plaintiff was upheld but the presiding justice of the peace absolved the company of blame in the other cases.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This work was adapted from Fall 2007 “Harlow’s Wooden Man.”


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