Recent explosion in Waukegan has nothing on 1911 blast

Published: 3/9/2008 12:21 AM

Last week's explosion in a Waukegan store made national news, but its impact was felt only blocks away.

On the night of March 9, 1911, people across the Midwest from Clinton, Iowa, to Libertyville, Illinois, to Cleveland, Ohio, were shaken by what they thought was an earthquake.

The shocks that an estimated 2.5 million people felt were, in fact, caused by a series of explosions at the DuPont Powder Mill in Pleasant Prairie, Wis.

Two million pounds of black blasting powder and 70,000 pounds of dynamite exploded, demolishing the plant just north of the state line. Manager Dale Bumsted of the Chicago DuPont office said, "As far as can be determined the first explosion was in the glazing mill where the coarse black powder was milling with a graphite mixture." There were 18 injured and three fatalities, including E.S. Thompson, the manager of the glaze room.

Founded in Delaware in 1802, the DuPont Company became the largest supplier of gunpowder to the U.S. military by the time of the Civil War. The Pleasant Prairie plant supplied black powder and dynamite for use in coal mines, quarries and railroad expansion in Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa.

The "earthquake" caused panic and damage throughout the region. Some Lake County residents ran from their homes to Lake Michigan and jumped in the water thinking it was the end of the world. Other residents along the North Shore saw the flames from the explosion "shoot up towards the sky." A woman in Elgin died of fright from the shock. In Chicago, fire alarms went off, and police rushed through the streets looking for the scene of the "bomb."

The most common complaint was the number of plate glass windows broken by the blast. Windows as far away as Chicago were shattered. The Great Lakes Naval Training Station filed a claim in the amount of $2,000 for the cost of replacing broken windows.

The heaviest damage was sustained in Pleasant Prairie and Bristol where 60 to 70 buildings, including residences, were destroyed. Mr. Brady, a plant worker said, "It is a miracle that we were not all blown to atoms. I don't know how far we were blown, maybe 40 or 50 feet." Portions of the debris of the plant were carried up to two miles away.

DuPont's Mr. Bumsted was perplexed by all the news coverage, claiming that "explosions occur every day in steel mills, flouring mills and grain elevators with hardly a line in the paper."