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Powder Car Explosion, 1910 (Utah History)

By: Ardis E. Parshall - August 16, 2012

One of my old Tribune columns —

After the 1876 explosion of the powder magazines on Arsenal (now Capitol) Hill killed four, shattered thousands of windows and demolished several buildings, Salt Lake required its merchants to store blasting supplies beyond city limits. Western Powder Co., suppliers to Utah’s miners, quarrymen, and construction companies, located its facility north of Beck’s Hot Springs.

On May 11, 1910, two cars filled with Western Powder supplies were detached from the train near the company’s lot. The cars were sidetracked 400 yards behind houses on Beck Street until the company could unload them.

On May 12, Charles Burns, 28-year-old son of a Beck Street family, idly noticed the placard listing the cars’ contents: nearly 30 tons of dynamite. Although he was not the specially trained explosives watchman that the law required the railroad to station near such inventory – no special watchman had been hired for that duty – Burns began to keep a wary eye on the two cars.

The cars were still sidetracked on the morning of May 13 – Friday the 13th – and Burns was watching them when a train passed shortly before noon, showering the cars with sparks from its smokestack. Burns watched closely for ten minutes, then went on with his work. The next time he turned around, a wisp of smoke was rising from the northwest corner of the front car.

Burns shouted for help. Workmen at a nearby lime quarry ran to set up a blockade of the wagon road well to the south of the cars. One, John McDuff, passed the news to two black families camped at the hot springs; while their wives and children climbed the hill to escape the potential blast zone, George Dixon and P.W. Bryant ran north along the road, turning back teamsters and pedestrians.

McDuff warned the residents of Beck Street and about 50 men, women and children ran. Burns hurried to use his father’s telephone, calling the Oregon Short Line office to have them halt all passing trains; when a voice coolly informed him that the company “would appreciate it if he would put out the blaze,” Burns hung up. He and his father picked up the bed where Burns’s invalid mother lay and followed the fleeing neighbors.

The explosion came at 12:20. From their places of relative safety, observers saw a sheet of bright yellow flame rise 100 feet above the first car and its 15 tons of dynamite. Then they saw debris scatter, so clearly outlined against the flame that rails, ties, and train wheels could be identified.

The sights of the explosion were followed seconds later by a tremendous roar. The concussion knocked a brick house from its foundation and shattered windows, knocked plaster off walls and overturned furniture all along Beck street. Resident William Bingley, hunting game in the brush at the lakeshore and until then unaware of the threat, was knocked to the ground, his rifle ripped from his arms.

A huge hole opened in the ground where the car had stood. A rail was blown along the road, shearing off telephone and telegraph poles as it flew, cutting off communication between Salt Lake and the north. High tension wires bringing power from the Bear River and Ogden Canyon stations were downed for hundreds of yards.

Inexplicably, the second train car and its explosive load remained intact.

The blast was strong enough to break windows in the north part of Salt Lake. When the power died, streetcars halted. Elevators failed. The Mormon Tabernacle organ fell silent in the middle of the noonday concert.

Then Utahns went to work. Power was rerouted from the Big Cottonwood station and the streetcars began to run again. Western Union restored communication with Ogden within the hour, and the Bell and Independent telephone companies competed to see who could install new poles first. Crews from three railroads reconstructed the destroyed rails.

Miraculously, no lives were lost; John McDuff’s cat, nose bloodied, appears to have sustained the only injury. And just as miraculously, efficient workmen, without computers or radios or cell phones, mended the hole in the state’s infrastructure before sunset.



  1. Think you used enough dynamite there, Butch?

    Glad no one got seriously injured. Looking back its amazing how lax safety standards were.

    Comment by Douglas Hudson — August 16, 2012 @ 7:33 am

  2. Init, though? I don’t want to encourage a political debate, but when I hear people complain about government regulation, I think of events like this and remember that there are good and sufficient reason for most of them.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 16, 2012 @ 7:40 am

  3. A true blast from the past! Nice call from whoever answered the phone at the Oregon Short Line RR to merely suggest that Burns should “put out the blaze.” Just as an FYI, parts of that old Pioneer Electric plant near the mouth of Ogden Canyon that provided electricity to Salt Lake is still there on 12th Street, just below Harrison Blvd.

    Comment by kevinf — August 16, 2012 @ 2:29 pm

  4. My great-grandfather, Alexander Carr, and his family lived just south of the old hot springs/Municiple Swimming building/Children’s Museum at 216 Fern Avenue. I don’t know how far north along Beck Street the cars were located, but if the Tabernacle and other places in the northern part of Salt Lake were inconvenienced by the blast, then this home would have been also. I don’t see any mention of it in family records, though. As a side note, the house is still standing.

    Comment by Maurine Ward — August 16, 2012 @ 8:19 pm

  5. It definitely raises questions. Do you know what happened to the house that ran away from its foundation?


    Comment by Julia — August 16, 2012 @ 9:11 pm

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