The Powell Squib Factory Disaster

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Memorial to the victims to the Powell Squib Factory victims, Shawnee Cemetery, Plymouth

Resting on the hills overlooking the community of Plymouth and the Wyoming Valley is the Shawnee Cemetery. Named in honor of the Shawnee Indians, who once lived on the flats along the Susquehanna River, this sacred spot is the final resting place of many of the town’s residents.

Successfully navigating the maze Plymouth’s of streets, I arrived at the Shawnee Cemetery located on the western edge of the community. For years the cemetery had been forgotten and neglected, but thankfully, in recent years volunteers have cleaned up the grounds returning the cemetery to its former glory.

Founded in 1870, Shawnee Cemetery has veterans from the Revolution to Vietnam resting on its thirteen and a half acres. Among those resting here are two U.S. Congressmen – Stanley Davenport and George Shonk – and victims of one of the most infamous mining disasters in Pennsylvania’s history: the Avondale Mine Disaster. The mine disaster claimed the lives of 110 miners; at least four of the deceased are buried here. These are not the only victims of mining accidents and disasters; after all, Plymouth grew from the mining of anthracite coal.

However, the reason I was here was to pay my respects to the victims of anther mining disaster who rest within the borders of this sacred piece of land.

Parking near the Civil War plot I could see the large memorial I was searching for standing a couple yards away. I walked down the roadway to the small plot of land and paused at the opening in the iron fence that guarded the white bronze memorial for those resting on this piece of ground.

Stepping carefully onto the sacred plot of land, I walked slowly around the memorial, quietly whispering each of the names listed on three of the four sides. The victims, most of whom were young girls between the ages of fifteen and twenty-two, worked at the Powell Squib Factory in Plymouth. On February 25, 1889, a massive explosion rattled dishes and knocked pictures off the walls of the community, destroying the factory and killing those inside.

The factory, owned by John Powell, produced squibs, which are paper straws filled with black powder with fuses at each end. Squibs were used in the mines to break up coal. Holes were drilled into the wall of coal into which squibs would be placed and lit. The resulting small explosions would break apart the coal. Note: Squibs are often wrongly referred to as fuses, but they are not the same. A squib is an explosive, whereas a fuse is lit to set off an explosive.

The job of producing squibs was a dangerous one and was often done by teenage girls as a means of providing family income. Creating squibs meant the girls were working among kegs of black powder and boxes of prepared squibs. These items were often stored in the basement of the factory while the girls worked on the floor above the explosives.

Normally the kegs of black powder were stored in a magazine located about one hundred yards away from the main factory. It is believed that on the day of the disaster, due to the size of the explosion, there were more kegs than normal being stored in the basement of the factory. The exact number of kegs or the amount of prepared squibs in the basement that fateful day is not known.

A second danger in making squibs was working near an open flame. In order to provide heat for the workers, there were fires burning within the factory. The Powell Squib Factory had three stoves burning to provide heat for the girls as they worked with the black powder to make the explosives.

These two hazards were bad enough, but the means of disposing faulty and substandard squibs was by tossing them into one of the fires. Often workers would humor themselves by tossing the faulty squibs into the fire so they could witness the small explosions.

The Powell Squib Factory normally had eighty to ninety girls working but on the fateful day of February 25 only eleven girls, plus the foreman, were present. There were two factors that kept the death total from being greater than it was. First, many of the girls had been furloughed because one of the machines used to produce squibs was broken. At the time of the disaster the factory only had forty girls employed.

A second factor that saved the majority of the girls employed by the company, was the disaster occurred at lunchtime. It was common for the girls to return home and eat lunch with their families. Had the explosion happened ten or fifteen minutes later, the disaster would have claimed more lives.

On February 25, 1889, shortly before one in the afternoon, the town of Plymouth would be shaken by a deafening explosion. The blast blew the roof off of the Powell Squib Factory (reports state it lifted five feet into the air before it came crashing down) and fire enveloped the remains of the building. Within ten minutes of the initial explosion the building had vanished into a pile of ash.

In the moments after the explosion, miners rushed out of the Gaylord Mine Shaft – the factory was located near the entrance to the mine –  in an attempt to rescue those within the factory, but they were driven back by the flames. Firemen arrived within minutes but stood helpless because the hoses could not reach the nearest water source.

In the aftermath of the disaster, the bodies of ten girls were discovered. Only one, Margaret “Maggie” Lynch, was able to be identified and this identification was made due to the clothing she was wearing. Maggie was not buried with the other victims in the Shawnee Cemetery. Her family took her remains to Larksville and had her buried in St. Vincent’s Cemetery. Note: The memorial in Shawnee Cemetery makes no mention of Maggie.

Only one person present would briefly survive the disaster. George Reese, who was the foreman on duty, was thrown out of the building by the blast. Reese would initially blame the disaster on a box of squibs that spontaneously combusted. He would quickly change his story blaming Katie Jones for the disaster. Reese claimed that Jones and another girl had been examining the squibs and were tossing the defective ones into the fire. In the process of sorting through the squibs she had accidentally tossed a live one into the stove and the resulting spark set the nearby lot of squibs on fire. This caused a series of explosions leading up to the blast that destroyed the factory.

Shortly before his death, Reese changed his story and confessed that he had been smoking in the basement. A spark from his pipe ignited the kegs of black powder stored there causing the massive explosion. His body would join the other victims buried in the plot in Shawnee Cemetery.

I shuddered as I stood there. So many young lives lost in the violent explosion. I quietly whispered each name again before I left them resting, overlooking the town they once called home, in the peace and silence of the cemetery.

A list of the victims of the Powell Squib Factory disaster: Maggie Lynch (age 21), Katie Jones (age 20), Hettie Jones (age 16), Gladys Reese (age 15), Mary Walters (age 17), Maggie Richards (age 17), Mary A. Lake (age 17), Ruth Powell (age 19), Ester Powell (age 22), Jane Ann Thomas (age 16), Charlotte Humphries (age 18), and George Reese (age 41).

Notes: I have found a number of lists that include a Ruth Walters as a victim of the disaster. While initial newspaper reports name her as a victim, her name disappears from the list of victims almost immediately. I believe the name was a misprint, combining the names Ruth Powell and Mary Walters.

Ruth and Ester Powell were sisters. They were the nieces of the factory owner, John Powell.

Gladys Reese was the daughter of foreman George Reese.

There seems to be a debate about the final resting place of Charlotte Humphries, which is also spelled Humphreys in some of the newspaper articles. All the early newspaper articles list Charlotte as a victim of the disaster and she continues to appear on the list of victims. However, after reading the names listed on the memorial, she, like Maggie Lynch, is not included. The question arises of her burial location. Some accounts have her listed as being buried with the other girls, yet other accounts state she was not buried with the others in Shawnee Cemetery. I have not read any articles stating her remains had been identified and buried in a family plot, so I would like to think she was buried with the other victims, but her final resting place remains a mystery to me at this time.

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