Western Cartridge Co. explosion, 1920

Four men were killed on June 24, 1920, when an explosion and fire wrecked part of a smokeless gunpowder plant northeast of Springfield.

The Western Cartridge Co., based in East Alton, opened the plant in 1915. Powder manufactured in Springfield was used to fill small-arms cartridges made in East Alton, which were then shipped to Allied combatants in World War I.

At its height following the United States’ entry into the war, 450 people worked at Western Cartridge in Springfield. The plant’s 40 buildings took up more than 300 acres. The site, two miles east of what was then the city waterworks (now Solomon Colors) on the Sangamon River, now is an industrial and truck salvage area. part of the Sangamon Valley Landfill. (Hat tip to Karen Fuhrmann on the Facebook site “Springfield Memories” for the correction.) 

The plant was shut down in January 1919, two months after the armistice, but reopened the next year, after Western Cartridge won a contract to supply ammunition to Czarist forces battling Bolshevik armies during the Russian Civil War. (Capt. Alexander Tschekaloff led a delegation of Russian monarchists who lived in Springfield while supervising Western Cartridge’s output.) That was the project employees were working on when the accident occurred.

About 45 people were in the plant’s finishing building in the early morning of June 24, when an explosion tore through the structure. The Illinois State Register gave a detailed account of the tragedy in that day’s edition.

The accident, according to officials at the plant, was probably caused by a bit of metal getting in the powder press. A spark was struck by the metal, it is thought, setting fire to the fifty pounds of powder in the press. This explosion would have caused no great damage itself, but it set fire to ether fumes in the room, which caused the main explosion.

The superintendent of the plant stated this morning that the presence of the fumes is inexplicable, as the air fan provided to keep the room clear of fumes was working properly at the time. Ether is used as a solvent in the finishing room, and a considerable quantity of it was present.

The finishing room, the officials added, “was considered the safest building on the grounds.” Damp night air might have caused the ether fumes to settle near the ground, where the ventilation system would have been less effective, they speculated.

Lee Kane, 21, and Chester Hauck, no age given, died at St. John’s Hospital about 12 hours after the blast. The bodies of 17-year-old William Dillard and William Ingram, 24, were found in a pit below the floor of the building after the fire was extinguished. The explosion apparently had blown the trap door off the pit, and Dillard and Ingram “fell into it while groping through the smoke toward the fire escapes,” according to the newspaper story. “They were unable to get out, as timber fell in on them, and they were burned to death.”

Two other men were seriously injured but survived. Everyone else escaped unharmed, including 20 women employees “who were all saved by the fire escapes, which are the modern chute type,” the Register said.

schs-logo-2The Russian contract was completed in August 1920, and the end of European hostilities apparently left Western Cartridge with no work for the Springfield plant. The Illinois State Journal reported the plant’s permanent closure in a two-paragraph story in November 1921.

Original content copyright Sangamon County Historical Society. You are free to republish this content as long as credit is given to the Society.

 

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