Homestead, NJ dynamite explosion, Mar 1907


Greenwich, Conn., and Distant Places Shaken by the Homestead Blow-Up.


Hundreds of Pounds of Dynamite Let Go, but Cause Unknown - No One Killed.

Nobody was killed by the terrific explosion of hundreds of pounds of dynamite in the magazine at the mouth of the Pennsylvania tunnels in Homestead, N. J., shortly after midnight Saturday night, although a watchman was mission for a short time yesterday, and this gave rise to a report that he had been blown to pieces. The missing man was George Johnson. He turned up this morning, and said he hadn't been hurt. He was on duty near the magazine just before the explosion.

Hundreds of Houses Damaged.

Considering the magnitude of the explosion, the injury to life and property was slight. Four persons were hurt, and removed to the hospital. One of these was a watchman who was approaching the magazine when the explosion occurred. Three or four hundred of the houses in Homestead, Union Hill, and vicinity were more or less badly damaged, most of them having their windows blown out and the weather boarding ripped off. It was a surpirse to many yesterday morning to learn that the damage caused by the explosion, which was heard in Geenwich, Conn., forty miles away, was not greater than this.

Why the shock carried so far was explained by professors in the School of Mines at Columbia University on the theory that it was due to atmospheric concussion rather than the earth vibrations. Being heavy and damp, the air was in excellent condition on Saturday night for the transmission of the shock for long distances. Then, too, the hill which rises perpendicularly at the rear magazine was located acted as a wall of the meadow in which the dynamite through which the amospheric vibrations could not penetrate and as a sounding board, which threw the concussion out across the river over New York and to the eastward. Under these ideal conditions, combined with the fact that the explosion was of such enormity, the professors declared that it was not remarkable that the concussion was felt forty miles away from the scene.

Cause of Explosion Not Known.

What caused the explosion has not been ascertained. There are three theories given for it. There were two distinct shocks, but it was the dynamite which went off to cap the climax which caused all the ruin and the noise.

Working Boss Frank Henry of the tunnel plant said yesterday the indications were that one of the four compressed-air tanks in the power house blew up first and that the detonation set off the dynamite. this theory was untenable, as the tanks were found intact.

Another explanation current was that four men were working with giant powder and that a spark got into the powder and that the men fled and gave the alarm before the powder went off and in turn set off the dynamite.

The third story was that a work train passing the storage house set it on fire through a spark, and that all the employes fled before the first explosion took place. An official investigation will be made within a day or two to ascertain if possible just how it occurred.

The main force of the explosion seemed to carry toward the northeast. The half dozen houses most seriously injured are in that direction. Along Bergenline Avenue, Union Hill, the force of the explosion was very marked, and that is to the east and north. One of the most serious losses is to the Givernaud Silk Mills. All the windows on one side were blown in, and the machinery was showered by broken glass and some of the machinery badly damaged. It will take a number of days to get all the machinery in working order. Meanwhile the weavers will be idle.

All day yesterday the stores which sold glass kept wide open, but they could only sell: they could not agree to put it in, for the demand was so great.

Thos who are skilled in doing it were busy all day cutting glass to fit, and householders had to make the best shift they could to put in their windows themselves.

Officials of the Pennsylvania Railroad and of the contracting company visited the scene of the accident yesterday. Charles M. Jacobs, chief engineer of the entire tunnel work, was at the scene early. He made a thorough investigation of the tunnel and discovered that it was in excellent condition. He accounted for this by saying the hard Palisade rock had resisted the shock. William Bradley, who holds the contract for the construction of that particular part of the tunnel, also arrived early, but after making a hurried investigation left. He refused to make a statement to the reporters.

Like the Work of a Cyclone.

All the buildings of the contractors and the little houses in the neighborhood looked yesterday as if a cyclone had struck them. The spot where the magazine had stood was marked by a hole about 15 feet long, 10 feet wide, and 4 feet deep, the margin of which appeared to be rolled back, like the peel of an orange that is ripped partly off. The boiler house looked as though it would collapse in a heap any moment. The corrugated plates constituting the facing hung suspended on a few nails and the wooden uprights were wobbly. The cement house lay spread out on the ground almost as flat as a pancake. The stone crusher and the office buldings appeared intact.

Houses in North Bergen, West Hoboken, and Union Hill Townships, within a mile of the scene, presented a fantastic appearance. They looked as though they had been subjected to a severe bombardment. All the windows, not a whole pane of which was left, were covered with boards, women's skirts, flaring rags, and other articles, as if the inhabitants had seized anything in their excitement to shut out the cold. Many of the houses were so badly wrecked that they will have to be rebuilt or renovated. Some of the streets were strewn with broken glass and shutters.

Employes of the contracting company made some remarkable statements about the explosion yesterday. They said that it sounded no louder to them than an ordinary discharge. They could give no reason for this, but they persisted in their statements. They said that they were enjoying their midnight meal about 1,000 feet away when the explosion came. Some of them were in the mouth of the tunnel and others were in shacks near by. They were aroused from their meal by a report, and they started out to investigate. Then they saw the destruction that had been wrought. For the first time they became excited, from the apprehension of what had happened to their families, who occupy the houses in the neighborhood, and without waiting to be dismissed stampeded for their homes.

Rushed from Their Homes.

The shock proved to be more than an "extraordinary discharge" to the residents of the townships scattered over the neighborhing hills. Many of these were awakened from their sleep by a trembling of the earth, followed by a terrific crash. They groped blindly about for lights, and then stood back aghast at the destruction. Shutters, window panes, and sashes were missing, and the cold wind poured into the rooms. On the floors lay pictures, bric-a-brac, and other trinkets. With the horrors of recent earthquakes fresh in their minds they rushed from their homes to the streets. All night long parties of the town people roamed through the streets, out of fear of returning to their homes.

Four persons in all were injured by the explosion. Antonio Mardak, a powder watchman, was hit by a splinter of wood and bruised about his head. Victoria Malberti, 24 years old; Giuseppe Malberti, 17 years, and Philipino Malberti, 7 years, were in their home below a candy shop kept by a Mrs. Marchall, about 200 feet from the scene of the explosion. They were injured by pictures aon other articles which fell on them from the walls. All were attended by Dr. Walseheld, physicians for the Bradleys, and taken to the North Hudson Hospital. The fact that the dynamite was stored in an isolated spot accounts for the few injuries among the workmen.

Emuel Groth, ex-Mayor of Union Hill, gave a party to some of his friends on Saturday night in a tavern he keeps on Hackensack Plank Road and Bergenline Avenue. The guests were about to sit down to a supper when the explosion resounded. They were cut by the dishes, which flew from the table. Groth, who was standing near a window, was caught in a sower of glass. He was badly cut about the face and hands. The party broke up immediately, the guests hurring home to see what had happened there.

Thrown from His Bed by the Shock.

Fred C. Pettet, a tailor, living at 171 Bergenline Avenue, in Union Hill, not far from the shaft that has been sunk into the tunnel, was thrown out of bed by the shock. Gathering himself together he ran to a bureau drawer and seized a revolver to protect himself. In his excitement he fired four shots through the window and just missed hitting a family opposite that were making a hurried exit from their home.

Immediately after the explosion shook his house Chief of Police Nolan of North Bergen hurried to the tunnel with Policeman Burnert. According to Brunert, he had made so many arrests at the tunnel on charges of keeping too much dynamite that he knew immediately what the trouble was.

When they tried to enter the offices of the company they found the door locked against them. Through a window they could see Supt. McManus talking to another man, and they called to him to open the door. McManus made no answer.

"If you don't let us in we'll break in," cried Nolan.

Brunert, who is well developed, put his shoulder to the door and it flew back with a bang.

"Why didn't you let us in?" demanded Nolan, angrily.

"I wanted to finish my conversation with Mr. Henry here," McManus replied, coolly.

Supt. McManus Arrested.

Nolan hurried McManus to the North Bergen Town Hall, where he locked him up. Later McManus was bailed by one of the Bradleys.

Supt. McManus said yesterday that the work in the tunnel would be resumed in twenty-four hours. The machinery which controlled the compressed air was damaged, he said, and the compressed air for the drills was cut off. This made it impossible for the men to go on with their work.

How much dynamite was stored in the magazine was a topic that the contractors studiously avoided discussing. In the excitement immediately following the explosion the report was circulated that there were four tons of it. When THE TIMES reporter visited the scene, an hour later, the employes made statements that from two to four tons had been exploded. One man, who said he was in the habit of visiting the magazine, declared that there were about eighty boxes of dynamite stored there when the explosion came. Since there are fifty pounds in each box, according to his account, there were two tons. F. Lavis, the resident engineer in charge of the construction of the westerly end of the tunnel, told THE TIMES over the telephone on Saturday night that he was quite certain that there were not less than 200 nor more than 1,000 pounds in the house.

Storage Ordinance Violated.

Alec Brunert of the North Bergen police told a TIMES reporter that the ordincance of the township required that no more than 100 pounds of dynamite should be kept in storage at any one time. He further stated that the contractors had already been arrested several times for violating the ordinance. J. F. McManus, the Night Superintendent, declared that all the arrests were in Jersey City and Weehawken, and that neither he nor anybody under him in the Homestead bore had ever been arrested.

Illegal Storage of Dynamite Alleged Against Tunnel Companies.

The effect of the Homestead explosion was severely felt in Jersey City. Even the City Hall, which is the most substantial structure in the city, built on solid ground, and fully seven miles from the scene, was shaken as if by an earthquake. The windows rattled and the electric lights wavered. Every one in Police Headquarters wondered what had happened, and all seven police stations were called up in an effort to learn what had occurred, but it was not until Police Headquarters at Hoboken volunteered the information that any details could be obtained. Even those were meagre.

The shock was distinctly felt in the Greenville section, over eight miles from Homestead. Houses shook and sleepers were aroused, while persons who had not yet retired rushed into the street, fearing that their dwellings might fall.

Members of Engine Company No. 6, whose engine is housed in Henderson Street, thought that the gas works of Sixth and Provost Streets had exploded. Without waiting for an alarm the engine was hurried to that point, and the firemen were greatly surprised when the employes refused to admit them on the ground that nothing had happened there.

In the "Horseshoe" section, which adjoins Hoboken, many families were awakened and dressed hurriedly, expecting tht the explosion might be followed by a fire. A colored man ran through Grove Street asking those he met if the day of judgment had come. No one could tell him.

There was much talk in Jersey City yesterday about the storage of dynamite in large quantities at the tunnels under construction. Only three weeks ago James M. Connolly, Inspector of Combustibles, had the officials of the Hudson River Tunnel Company before Police Jutice Higgins on the charge that the company had stored at First and Washington Streets 1,500 pounds of dynamite and at Pier C, foot of York Street, adjacent to the Pennsylvania Railroad ferries, 1,300 pounds. William D. Edwards, counsel for the officials, said he would "admit the dynamite and submit to the penalty." His clients were fined $50, the extreme penalty in such cases, and notified to store the dynamite elsewhere.

Three days later Inspector Connolly again cited the tunnel officials before the court on the ground that its order had not been complied with. Mr. Edwards told Police Justice Higgins that the order was being complied with as rapidly as possible and that the dynamite was being taken to the tunnel under the river. It is understood that it is all there now, but exactly how far it is from the shore not enven Inspector Connolly could learn, as the tunnel officials would give no information except to say that the company had complied with the order of the court.

The explosion was felt in Newark, beyond, Elizabeth, and as far north as the extreme end of the Bronx and at Coney Island.

The New York Times, New York, NY 4 Mar 1907