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Pa. recalls overshadowed Civil War arsenal blast

SHARE Pa. recalls overshadowed Civil War arsenal blast

PITTSBURGH — There's not much left of the Allegheny Arsenal, which was the site of the worst loss of civilian life in the Civil War.

But local historians are determined to shine a light on the gunpowder-fueled explosions that killed 78 Pittsburghers 150 years ago Monday.

The chain-reaction explosions and fires were so intense that more than half of the victims were burned beyond recognition, and the surrounding area was littered with body parts and burning shards of wood. Nearly all the victims — 72 — were young women or girls as young as 12, hired because their nimble, smaller fingers were ideal for rolling the gunpowder charges loaded into bullets being made for Union soldiers.

The disaster has been largely overlooked because on the same day about 100 miles south, there were nearly 24,000 casualties in the Battle of Antietam, making Sept. 17, 1862, the single bloodiest day of the conflict. The explosion was remembered over the weekend with several events in Pittsburgh.

"Antietam overshadowed everything," said Jim Wudarczyk, an amateur historian and author of "Pittsburgh's Forgotten Allegheny Arsenal".

"When you compare 78 lives with almost 24,000 killed, wounded or captured, it almost seems insignificant. And that's a tragedy."

A careful study of the explosion teaches much about the Civil War, 19th-century culture and Pittsburgh history.

"When your own city is rocked by an explosion at the arsenal where the munitions of war are being fabricated and women, mothers, sisters, daughters are the victims, that gets people's attention in earnest, that we're all affected, we're all a part of the war," said Andrew Masich, president and chief executive of the Senator John Heinz History Center.

Today, all that remains of the arsenal — which covered much of what are now two city blocks in the city's Lawrenceville section — are part of the stone wall that surrounded it, two gunpowder magazines that serve as restrooms in Arsenal Park, and an officers' residence. Nearby Arsenal Middle School and Arsenal Lanes, a bowling alley down the street, are the other prominent reminders.

But Masich, Wudarczyk and other members of the Lawrenceville Historical Society are hoping to preserve and amplify the disaster. Local author Mary Frailey Calland's historical novel, "Consecrated Dust," mixes the stories of fictional characters with real-life victims. She also penned a dramatic reading performed Sunday by three musical theater students who portrayed girls working at the arsenal.

The Heinz History Center held a mock tribunal Saturday, in which museum guests served on a jury charged with determining how the blast occurred.

The most popular theory is that gunpowder wasn't properly swept away from one of the powder room porches or the nearby streets, creating a "fuse-like trail into the building," Calland said. That "fuse" could have been accidentally lit by a spark from an iron-shod horse or the iron wheels of the supply wagon it was pulling over the flinty cobblestone streets.

What's clearer is who got blamed for the tragedy: Col. John Symington, the arsenal commander, and Alexander McBride, a laboratory superintendent whose 15-year-old daughter, Kate, died in the explosion.

"He gets blamed because, at the end of the day ... he was in charge of these laboratories," Calland said of McBride. Symington was a more indirect scapegoat, blamed simply because he was in charge of the arsenal even though, the local historians suggest, he tried to keep his workers safe.

The previous October, Symington fired 200 young men and boys when he learned some were playing with matches around the gunpowder.

The local press, aware of the dangerous conditions at the arsenal, at first criticized Symington for not doing enough to make things safe, Wudarczyk said. Then, after he fired the young men and replaced them mostly with women, he was criticized for what the press called "a wanton display of arbitrary power."

Actually, Wudarczyk believes, Symington had simply devised a clever solution to a knotty problem.

"In those days, good girls didn't smoke, so you didn't have to worry about someone bringing matches into the arsenal anymore," Wudarczyk said.

But, for whatever reason — careless workers who didn't properly sweep away the powder each day or because wooden kegs were reused when they shouldn't have been, allowing some powder to sift onto the ground through small crevices — the fuse was unwittingly set.

Residents are insistent that the victims become more that a gruesome historical footnote.

"For us, it's about remembering the civilian contribution to the war effort," said Daniel Simpkins, president of the Lawrenceville Historical Society. "What makes it more heinous is it wasn't men dying, it was young girls."

Masich agrees.

"They do deserve to be remembered just as the soldiers who gave their lives on the battlefield of Antietam that day."