Historian discusses 1878 nitroglycerin blast

Bill Van Kosky, local historian, speaks at the Marquette Regional History Center Wednesday night about a major 1878 nitroglycerin explosion near Negaunee to an audience of over 100 people. (Journal photo by Cecilia Brown)


Journal Staff Writer

MARQUETTE — On Jan. 2 1878, a tremendous explosion a half-mile west of Negaunee was felt across Marquette County — a blast so powerful that it inspired fear in men 300 feet underground at the Pioneer Mine and in residents of Marquette, miles away from the incident.

Horses startled, women and children ran into the streets, and men stood still from the shock of the explosion, trying to comprehend the magnitude of what had occurred.

“Here in Marquette, people heard a sharp crack of an explosion, somewhere off to the west, that’s all they could tell — somewhere to the west was a louder explosion than they ever heard,” said Bill Van Kosky, local historian.

The explosion and surrounding events were the topic of a talk by Van Kosky that drew more than 100 people to the Marquette Regional History Center in Marquette Wednesday night.

The 1878 explosion had occurred on a railroad siding near Negaunee, where employees of the Lake Superior Nitroglycerin Company were loading 4,800 pounds of nitroglycerin, a notoriously unstable and dangerous explosive, into a train car destined for the Republic Mine.

When nitroglycerin was initially formulated by Ascanio Sobrero in 1847, he quickly realized it was a highly explosive compound.

“It generated much more destructive power than black powder,” which had been the only known explosive since it originated in 10th century China, Van Kosky said.

Sobrero recognized there was a tremendous need for a powerful explosive like nitroglycerin, as the industrial revolution was rapidly increasing the demand for mining products.

However, after extensive testing of the compound, Sobrero felt it was “so dangerous and unstable” that he couldn’t recommend its use, Van Kosky said.

“It was highly unstable and susceptible to shock, so if you allowed it to freeze, you’d better hold your breath while you thaw it, because you could be blown to bits,” said Van Kosky.

Sobrero had discovered nitroglycerin was highly unstable and explosive around its freezing point — 39 degrees Fahrenheit.

He also found nitroglycerin was highly shock-sensitive, meaning that a sudden impact to the substance was liable to lead to an explosion.

While Sobrero washed his hands of the dangerous compound after writing up his findings, Alfred Nobel, a young mechanical engineer, read Sobrero’s findings on nitroglycerin. Nobel was then convinced he could find a way to safely commercialize nitroglycerin, which he knew would be of interest to mining magnates.

Nobel worked to find a way to detonate nitroglycerin in a safe, controlled manner. His answer finally came in the form of a blasting cap that could be ignited by lighting a fuse, Van Kosky said.

As expected, this led to widespread commercialization of nitroglycerin in the following years, but it took the local mines on the Marquette Iron Range years to adopt it.

“When nitroglycerin began to replace blasting powder in the Marquette range, which was in 1869, it was being phased out in the large western mines. The Marquette Iron Range was not on the cutting edge when it came to adopting new technologies,” Van Kosky said.

In fact, local mines began using nitroglycerin around two years after Nobel’s 1867 invention of dynamite, which was a safer explosive that overcame “many disadvantages of nitroglycerin,” said Van Kosky.

When the mines on the Marquette Iron Range started using nitroglycerin in 1869, there were a number of “close calls,” but they stopped short of disaster — unlike the 1878 explosion, which killed the three men loading the nitroglycerin and several workers on the train.

The 1878 explosion of 4,800 pounds of nitroglycerin catapulted the train car 100 feet off the tracks and left a 5-foot deep, smoking hole in the ground, but little evidence of the men or the train car.

“There was not enough left to kindle a fire,” Van Kosky said of the train car.

The force of the blast was also enough to shatter many of the windows in surrounding towns — a dire situation on Jan. 2 in the Upper Peninsula.

“Virtually every window in Jackson location was broken; most of the windows were broken in Negaunee,” said Van Kosky, noting that little work in the mines was accomplished over the following days, as everyone was working to board up windows.

The details of events leading up to the explosion were hotly contended, but the two living witnesses of the event reported observing “careless and negligent handling of the explosive by employees of the Lake Superior Nitroglycerin Company,” Van Kosky said.

The two witnesses reported observing the loaders “clanging and banging” cans of nitroglycerin — one of the witnesses even stopped to caution the loaders about the dangers of handling the shock-sensitive material in a rough manner, but one of the loaders defiantly kicked a can of nitroglycerin in response to this comment, Van Kosky said.

In the aftermath of the explosion, there was widespread public outcry about damages and the use of nitroglycerin. Forty-one suits were filed against the Lake Superior Nitroglycerin Company for damages related to the explosion. All but one were dismissed — a supposed “test case” that ruled in favor of the plaintiff.

“The public felt that (nitroglycerin) should be outright banned, but the mining people were absolutely opposed to that,” Van Kosky said.

Despite the public outcry and wildly circulating rumors about nitroglycerin being hauled on passenger trains, the incident didn’t stop the use of nitroglycerin in local mines — in fact, it was used for a few more years after the incident.

Locally, the use of nitroglycerin only stopped after the mining companies decided to begin using dynamite because it had become the new industry standard.

“It was a few years before dynamite replaced it,” Van Kosky said. “It wasn’t as if there was widespread revulsion and they quit using nitroglycerin.”

While some details of this incident will always remain mysterious, Van Kosky’s presentation illuminated the raw power of nitroglycerin — and the scientific, economic and industrial forces that briefly made it the explosive of choice for mining operations all over the world.

Cecilia Brown can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 248. Her email address is cbrown@miningjournal.net.


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