Willoughby: Many feared powder, but a different kind — not powder for skiers | AspenTimes.com

Willoughby: Many feared powder, but a different kind — not powder for skiers

Tomkins Hardware explosives storage around 1900.
Aspen Historical Society photo

The history of explosives intertwines with Aspen’s history since it was a major consumer. Every mine depended on some form of explosive to advance shafts and tunnels through solid rock. The power of powder was in evidence every day, but the unintended consequences of errors and accidents were also witnessed frequently.

Black powder was the sole explosive used in American mining for many decades. It is a mixture of saltpeter, charcoal and sulfur. Until 1865 the innovations were not to the powder, but how to set it off. In 1830 a device using electricity was patented and in 1889 pasteboard cartridges to contain the power were introduced. As explosives go, black powder explodes slowly, which made it relatively safer to use.

Everything changed in 1865 when Alfred Nobel patented nitroglycerin and the blasting cap. Production using his patent began in 1868 when the Giant Powder Co. of San Francisco began production of what we now call dynamite. The more powerful and safer product took over in the Comstock and in California gold mines. The company produced around 4 million pounds in 1880 increasing to almost 31 million in 1890 and 85 million in 1900.

Tomkins Hardware in Aspen was the distributor for Giant Powder Co. dynamite. There were other brands like Hercules that came out just before Aspen was founded. The differences were mostly the mix amounts of the ingredients. Giant contained 48% potassium nitrate and sodium nitrate where Hercules had only 31%. Hercules had no sulfur; Giant contained 8%. Mining companies found the mixes that worked best for them with a major difference being the relative humidity in their mines.

Even though miners had shifted to packaged sticks of explosive named dynamite, they continued to refer to their explosives as powder.

Stockpiling powder created a hazard. Today when an airliner crashes it is major news; in mining Aspen the catastrophe news champions were powder explosions. The year Aspen was founded, 1879, featured an explosion of two tons of powder and black powder in a Giant Powder Co. storage facility in Bodie, California. The cause was never figured out. Six people were killed, dozens injured, and surrounding buildings were damaged.

The Giant Powder Co. had a history of calamities. In 1869 their San Francisco plant blew up, so they moved to the Sunset District near the ocean. That blew up too, so they moved across the bay to Albany in 1880. In 1892 another explosion killed all the workers at that site, shattering windows for miles around.

Closer to Aspen, mining towns experienced consequential explosions. In 1891 a fire started in a shaft house in the Butte, Montana, copper mine setting off 200 pounds of dynamite. According to The Aspen Times, “50 houses were torn to atoms and many people injured.” A blast in China killed 300 in a powder plant. The Kings Powder Mill just outside of Cincinnati had 1,00 pounds of explosives go off when a railroad car ran into the pile, killing 10 and injuring 35.

There was a big scare in 1892. Several Aspen residents were on their way home on the Colorado Midland when they heard a loud explosion and the train car shook. When they got to Aspen they reported that “dishes, glass and crockery that were stored in the buffet car were broken into a thousand fragments.” The explosion took place at the entrance to the Bask-Ivanhoe tunnel that was under construction to shorten the route over the mountains and the passengers feared that all the workers had been killed. They began telegraphing the construction office and did not hear until the next day that no one was killed when 500 pounds of powder that had been delivered just hours before exploded.

Cities, including Aspen, learned that explosives storage should be in isolated locations. Tomkins Hardware built their storage on the east side of the Ute Cemetery, at that time the edge of town, and maybe a good reminder since you passed the cemetery to get there.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at redmtn2@comcast.net.

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