PLYMOUTH — Feb. 25, 1889.
It was probably a typical day at work at the Powell Squib Factory on Cool Street (East Shawnee Avenue) in Plymouth.
Squibs, according to John Hepp, professor at Wilkes University, were fuses that would have been used in the coal mines in the region. Miners would drill holes into the face of the coal, put squibs in the holes and light the fuse to set off the explosive that blasted out the rock and coal.
The result was a controlled explosion to break the coal into smaller, more usable pieces. Hepp said squibs are still used today in Hollywood, often placed on actors to imitate the effects of a gunshot.
While not as powerful as a stick of dynamite, a squib always posed the risk of an untimely explosion. Despite the risk, Hepp said, miners were typically safe in using them and the fuses were generally dependable by the late 1800s.
“The problem, of course, is they were black powder,” Hepp said. “Consequently, they could catch fire.”
That very thing happened at 1 p.m. Feb. 25, 1889.
A day of tragedy
The Wilkes-Barre Record headline of “Burned to a Crisp” reported on the tragedy Feb. 26.
A foreman, George Reese, was one of the 12 people in the building. He managed to escape after the blast had a discussion with the coroner that was published in the Feb. 27 edition of the Record.
He said 17-year-old worker, Katie Jones, and another girl were inspecting squibs for quality at about noon.
“I, at that time, stood beside the stove, and Katie was sorting the squibs at the table,” Reese told the coroner. “Katie came from the tables and said to me, ‘These are all bad, and I’m going to burn them.’ ”
Reese said Jones had some refuse on her apron and she went to throw the refuse into the stove. Reese speculated that there must have been a live squib in the refuse, which he said flew out of the stove and to the rear of the building.
Its landing spot proved tragic — on top of a sheet of paper that covered a case of squibs.
“As soon as it dropped on that it exploded like a cannon,” Reese said.
The force of the explosion blew the roof more than 5 feet into the air before it came down on the workers. A second explosion reportedly blew out the sides of the structure.
The blast killed 12 people, 10 of them young girls. Foreman Reese would also later die due to his injuries. Another victim could not be identified; the Record reported that her remains resembled “only a mass of glue.”
Hepp said close to 80 people worked in the factory at the time, but most of them were out eating lunch.
A family endeavor
Men were not the only ones to work during the late 1800s. Hepp said men could not support their families with just a job in the mines; the rest of the family had to chip in.
Breaker boys also worked the mines and women worked in factories.
“It was particularly common in the anthracite region,” Hepp said. At the time, Hepp said, the average minimum age of factory workers was about 12.
“Some of these poor girls who died (at the squib factory) were 13, 14, 15 … but they were very typical factory workers,” Hepp said.
Hepp said that, while tragic, factory accidents were common. The factories themselves were more dangerous than the finished product. If a factory wanted to create 100 squibs, for example, Hepp said they would have the material for them in the building.
He also said it was common practice to have multiple buildings to store materials in.
“Ironically, the Powell factory had a wonderful national reputation for its product,” Hepp said. He added that the factory owner, John Powell, also died in a similar blast that happened on Nov. 8, 1910.
A monument and mass grave for the victims can be found at the Shawnee Cemetery along West Mountain Road. The following is inscribed on the monument:
“Together they sleep on the sloping green where the flowers bloom ‘neath the sunlight beam and the soft breezes sigh through the willow tree that nods o’er the grave in the sunny Shawnee.”