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Allegheny Arsenal blast being recounted at Civil War fair

Tragedy here remains nearly forgotten

Monday, June 17, 2002

By Jan Ackerman, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Like so much of Pittsburgh's forgotten history, the monument to the greatest civilian tragedy in the Civil War is hidden. It sits alongside a fence in Section 17 of Lawrenceville's Allegheny Cemetery, dwarfed by giant obelisks honoring notable Pittsburgh families.

This is a late-19th century photo of the arsenal on Butler Street, where an explosion on Sept. 17, 1862, killed 78 workers. The structure was erected in 1814 and demolished in 1947.

The people it honors are mostly young women who worked loading cartridges and fabricating gun parts for Union soldiers at the Allegheny Arsenal in Lawrenceville.

Sept. 17, 1862, was payday at the arsenal. A group of women who worked packing gun cartridges as "pinchers" and "bundlers" in Room 14 were lined up to get their pay at about 2 p.m. when an explosion rocked Building 1, the plant's main room. Two more explosions tore into the arsenal, damaging other areas. The girls from Room 14 got out before the third explosion blasted their work area. Many others didn't make it, though.

Seventy-eight workers, most of them young women and teen-age girls, died. Sisters died together, as did fathers and daughters. The plant superintendent, Alexander McBride, lost his young daughter, Katie, and narrowly escaped death when the second blast threw him 30 feet in the air after he tried to re-enter the laboratory to rescue his daughter.

The Daily Post, one of the city's newspapers, reported on fleeing victims covered in flames or lacerations. As a result of the explosions "the ground was strewn with charred wood, torn clothing, grape shot, exploded shells, fragments of dinner baskets, steel springs from girls' hoop skirts and melted lead," the news account said.

Forty-five of the arsenal explosion victims were buried in individual coffins in a common sepulcher near the present-day monument.

The inscription reflects the pain that the people of Lawrenceville and Pittsburgh felt on that horrible day: "Tread softly. This is consecrated dust. Forty-five pure patriotic victims lie here. A sacrifice to freedom and civil liberty. A horrid memento to a most wicked rebellion. Patriots!"

James Wudarczyk of Lawrence-ville, one of a small cadre of Lawrenceville residents who have tried to keep the history of the old arsenal alive, told the story of the explosion in a 1999 book called "Pittsburgh's Forgotten Allegheny Arsenal." The book is out of print, but available at the Carnegie Library.

"The history of the arsenal has been shamefully neglected," said Wudarczyk, who has been researching the history of the arsenal since 1982.

 
 
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As part of this weekend's fourth annual Civil War Fair at West Park near the National Aviary on the North Side, Wudarczyk will distribute a commemorative newsletter with an article he has written about the incident. It is an appropriate place to tell the story because the theme of the fair is "Women in the Civil War."

Wudarczyk relied partly on materials from two local authorities on arsenal history -- Allan Becer and John Carnprobst -- as well as his brother, Jude Wudarczyk, who also is an authority on Lawrenceville history.

The arsenal stood on 38 acres between 39th and 40th streets and operated from 1814 until 1926. Today, the arsenal is gone and the site of the explosion is a ballfield in Arsenal Park in Lawrenceville.

Wudarczyk said parts of the old arsenal wall and a gunpowder magazine built around 1817 that could hold 1,300 barrels of gunpowder still remain.

The powder magazine has been turned into a different kind of powder room.

"It now is the bathrooms in Arsenal Park," said Wudarczyk.

He said two garages in the Allegheny County Health Department complex and one building between Butler Street and the Allegheny River are relics of the arsenal at the time of the Civil War. They have no historic markers on them.

"The entire complex is listed on the city and national historical registers, which doesn't mean a lot when they are neglected," Wudarczyk said.

For years, a picturesque gatehouse to the arsenal stood along Butler Street midway between 39th and 40th streets. After the arsenal closed, there were numerous efforts to preserve it, but none was successful.

In the 1930s, the gatehouse was supposed to be moved to South Park and reconstructed as a shrine. But that never happened. The gatehouse finally was torn down in about 1947, because a grocery firm in Lawrenceville said it was a traffic hazard to trucks.

Even in its own era, the arsenal explosion did not receive extensive national publicity. That's because it occurred on the same day as the battle of Antietam near Sharpsburg, Md., the bloodiest single day's battle ever fought in North America.

Women took industrial jobs during the Civil War just as they did in World War II, for much the same reasons. Men were at war, there was a need for workers, and it was a time of high inflation, Wudarczyk said.

And young girls had replaced many boys who formerly worked at the arsenal because some of the boys had left matches around the gunpowder.

In peacetime, about 100 people worked at the arsenal, which was built in 1814, the same year that William Barclay Foster, father of composer Stephen Foster, founded Lawrenceville.

During the Civil War, Wudarczyk said, it employed about 1,100 who loaded cartridges and grapeshot and produced gun carriages, caissons, fabricated leather goods, belt buckles and other supplies needed by Union soldiers.

Within a day of the explosions, the government provided plain black coffins for the remains and Allegheny Cemetery donated a lot that was used as a mass burial pit for the coffins.

In subsequent weeks, a coroner's jury found that the explosions were the result of negligent conduct by Col. John Symington, commander of the arsenal, and his subordinates, including McBride, for allowing loose gunpowder to accumulate in and near the magazine buildings.

However, a later military inquiry that heard contradictory testimony exonerated Symington and ruled that the cause of the explosion could not be determined.

By the early 1900s, the importance of the arsenal diminished and most of the land was sold. McBride continued to champion compensation for the victims, but his requests fell on deaf ears.

After the arsenal grounds were sold in 1926, many of the buildings were altered or disappeared.

In 1928, the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War and the ladies auxiliary of that organization installed a new monument for the victims of the explosion at Allegheny Cemetery. That monument used the same inscription as the original, but it also included the names of all 78 victims.

Wudarczyk said that thanks to the efforts of Joseph A. Borkowski, honorary president of the Lawrenceville Historical Society, a plaque was placed in Arsenal Park honoring the victims of the explosion. There's also a plaque in Arsenal Middle School in Lawrenceville.

Wudarczyk said other victims of the explosion are buried in St. Mary's Cemetery, the adjoining Catholic cemetery.

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