Dynamite was invented by Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel in 1867. Yes he was the same Nobel who created the Nobel Prize. Al found that by mixing the notoriously unstable nitroglycerin with diatomaceous earth he could make a paste that could be shaped. To detonate the shaped charges he invented the blasting cap. Miners, construction workers, farmers and anyone with the need to demolish, break, or otherwise make things explode now had what they needed. It was readily available and its purchase was unrestricted. You could buy it in just about any hardware store.
“Hey Fred, I need to blow out a few stumps in the back forty.”
“Okay, here’s some dynamite, oh and you’ll need some blasting caps and fuse.”
And off the farmer would go to sometimes send stumps, rocks, and splinters across his pasture, causing cows to go dry, and windows to shatter in the neighbor’s house.
As I explored past accounts of wildfires I found that dynamite was mentioned in more than a few accounts of wild fires.
The first account is found in the Somerset Herald on May 7, 1884. Cornelius Vanderbilt had proposed building a railroad across southern Pennsylvania to compete with the near-omnipotent Pennsylvania Railroad. At Sideling Hill in Fulton County, where work was progressing on Vanderbilt’s railroad, a wildfire was threatening a dynamite magazine.
Three magazines, each containing about ten tons of dynamite and powder, are surrounded by hundreds of cords of burning wood. The contractors, Messrs. Rogers and O’Brian, attempted to remove the dynamite with a force of workmen, but were driven away by the smoke and flames. An explosion is hourly expected and the citizens are panic-stricken.
Ten tons of dynamite is a lot of BOOM! The firefighting efforts must have prevailed as there is no account of an explosion.
The next account of dynamite and forest fires again happened on Sidling Hill in Fulton County on May 12, 1926. This incident was reported in the Mount Carmel Item, Mount Carmel, PA.
A forest fire on Sidling Hill, near McConnellsburg, set off a quantity of dynamite and caps which had been stored along the Lincoln Highway by a crew at work on a construction project.
The explosion occurred as a closed motor car was passing the scene. The glass windows of the car were shattered but the occupants escaped injury.
Another fire was started by the explosion.
The following year another event starring the explosive occurred in Schuylkill County. As the spring fire season progressed dozens of small fires were reported across the state. One of the most dangerous incidents occurred on April 11 between Frackville and Fountain Springs. A brush fire caused by a contractor clearing a telephone line, got away and burned a dynamite magazine containing 1500 pounds of dynamite. The dynamite which was being used in construction of a state road exploded. Seven cars parked at the worksite were damaged as well as several buildings but fortunately nobody was injured. This event was reported in The Daily News, also of Mount Carmel, on April 12, 1927 as well as other newspapers across the state.
The following year a rather strange account of an event that happened to a towerman in Tioga County and was reported in the Harrisburg Telegraph on April 11, 1928.
A porcupine full of dynamite gave a Tioga county forest fire ranger an unpleasant few hours the other day.
R. Lynn Emerick, chief of the Bureau of Research and Information of the Department of Forests and Waters, received a report of the incident to-day from District Forester Paul H. Mulford, of Wellsboro.
The ranger, greatly agitated, called Mr. Mulford and reported that a porcupine had crawled up into his tower, sixty feet from the ground and had consumed two sticks of dynamite. He found the “porky” feasting on the dynamite when he mounted his tower and beat a hasty retreat. The porcupine followed him down the ladder. The ranger was fearful that the porcupine might fall and explode, destroying the tower and was also afraid to shoot the animal for the same reason.
When the porcupine had gone a safe distance into the woods the ranger again mounted the tower and telephoned to Mr. Mulford for advice. He was told that the dynamite was much more dangerous to the animal than to the ranger or the tower.
This story begs several questions. What was dynamite doing in a fire tower? Why was the dynamite unsecured in an unsecured cabin at the top of the fire tower? And notably, why didn’t it explode?
On April 9, 1929 the Kane Republican reported an unusual start for a forest fire.
State police stationed in Kane today were asked to aid Forest county authorities in search for dynamiters who blew up an abandoned automobile seven miles this side of Marienville, starting a forest fire. Twenty-five acres of forest land were burned over before a crew of men from Marienville could extinguish the flames. Several buildings were endangered but none were destroyed.
The automobile, a Star sedan was abandoned by the owner, James Walton, of Redcliff, about twenty feet off the General Kane highway the past winter when it became stuck in a snow drift. Tires and other parts of the machine were stolen, and the climax came Sunday when dynamite was placed in the car.
The force of the explosion completely wrecked the car and threw burning brands into the brush starting the forest fire. It is believed that about five sticks of dynamite were used.
Members of the State Forest Service in Marienville rounded up a crew of 27 men who fought the fire.
It was stated at Marienville today that a gang of youths is under suspicion in the case. Forest officials, who are conducting the investigation, believe they have learned the motive back of the dynamiting but refused to release any of the details.
There have been several serious forest fires in this section the past week. Sixty-five acres of forest land was burned over in a fire along Bear Creek last week….
Dynamite was easy to get, and what group of juvenile delinquents doesn’t like to see a car explode?
The following year another dynamite incident happened. According to the Courier-Express of Dubois, of September 9, 1930:
With a jarring reverberation that was heard all over the East Side and in many sections of the central portion of the city, about fifty pounds of dynamite that was stored in a shed on the George Minns farm let loose at 4:30 o’clock Monday afternoon, totally destroying the shed as well as a large amount of farm implements that were in the structure. The detonation was especially severe in the immediate vicinity, and alarmed everyone in the neighborhood. Golf players on the course one-half mile away were startled to hear the explosion and to see portions of a building flying through the air. From more distant points a tall column of white smoke indicated the location of the blast.
The explosion was caused by a field fire that had been creeping around in the vicinity of the shed for some little time. County Commissioner George Minns had just arrived home a little time previous to the explosion and stated that had noticed the smoke over the hill and was about to start to the field to investigate. Before he left his home the explosion took place.
The explosion made a complete wreck of the building, and the resultant fire cleaned up the shed in good shape, consuming all the lumber with the exception of the pieces that were scattered over the surrounding field for about 1,000 feet in all directions.
The loss is estimated by Mr. Minns to be in the neighborhood of $1,500, with no insurance. The shed was not worth so much, but the machinery that was stored in it was very valuable, including a stumping machine, disc harrows, etc.
Fortunately no one was in the immediate vicinity. The explosion attracted a large amount of attention and dozens of people proceeded to the scene. A vast column of smoke rolled up after the explosion, and aroused the curiosity of many, who went to the field to ascertain what had happened.
The dynamite was some that was left over after a large portion had been used in blowing out stumps.
The explosion seemed to lift the structure into the air, there being no hole in the ground.
On April 14, 1931 the Peerless Union Explosives Company packing plant near White Haven in Luzerne County, exploded and started a forest fire. The cause of the explosion is unknown and the fire burned about 35 acres before it was contained. The story of the fire is found on page 1 of the second section of the Wilkes-Barre Record under the heading “Large Forces Combat Fires: Flames Reach Menacing Proportions and Devastate Big Forest Areas.” The story about the explosion itself was found on page two of the first section of the paper. Fortunately nobody was injured.
Later that spring, across the state in Clarion County Harvey Linn, 16, had his thumb and first finger on his left hand blown off when a dynamite cap he found on the railroad tracks while fighting a forest fire detonated.
Near Centralia, a crew had been working on extinguishing a forest fire in May of 1937 when the fire encountered blasting caps used for detonating dynamite. The caps exploded but fortunately nobody was injured. Assistant District Forester M. H. Hench of Bloomsburg stated, “I want especially to ask all people who use dynamite and dynamite caps to keep them in such a manner and place as to be out of reach of forest fires. If such material is left in the woods, a fire will cause it to explode and may cause injury and even death to anyone in the immediate vicinity of the dynamite.” He further stated, “If dynamite and caps are left in the woods, I am afraid someone may be seriously hurt. Please be careful with fires and please be careful about leaving explosives in the woods within reach of forest fires.” The news story was carried in the Mount Carmel Item, the Plain Speaker from Hazleton and the Shamokin News-Dispatch. Apparently the caps were left by coal miners. There is no follow-up on what the erstwhile blasters did with the explosives, but one can assume they listened and took them home and stored them in the barn or their basement.
Dynamite was again prominent in a wildfire. On April 6, 1938 the Mount Carmel Item reported,
Two Heckscherville school boys were recovering today from injuries suffered when several sticks of dynamite, cached in a woods near the St. Keirans School, caught fire and exploded.
The boys, fighting the small brush fire which ignited the dynamite, were far enough away to escape the main force of the blast.
Joseph Burns, Jr., was in the Fountain Springs Hospital with lacerations and burns. His 12-year-old companion, James Brennan, was treated by a physician for slight lacerations.
Today all explosives are highly regulated – fortunately. In Pennsylvania that is accomplished through the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. According to the DEP website
Only licensed blasters can detonate explosives within the Commonwealth. Blasters may be licensed as surface mine, general, construction, underground mine, or industrial blasters. To become a licensed blaster, one must meet certain requirements. The applicant is required to have one year of training as a blasters learner before admission to the course. The applicant must document this experience by supplying a signed, notarized statement from his employers. An applicant must be least nineteen years old. The Department also provides a course dealing with rules, regulations, and safety practices in the use and storage of explosives. All blasters are required to successfully pass a written exam prior to the issuance of the blasters license.
Explosives are stored in licensed buildings called magazines. Before issuing a license, inspectors check the storage facility. The magazine must be certain distances from railroads, buildings, and highways. The distances depend on the amount and type of explosive stored. Distance requirements are listed in Chapter 211 of the Department’s Rules and Regulations. Magazines must be built a certain distance from other magazines.
Transportation of explosives is strictly regulated. Vehicles must be clearly labeled according to Pennsylvania Department of Transportation standards. A licensed driver must be at least twenty-one years old and a valid commercial driver’s license. Explosives and blasting caps must be separated from each other and other materials during transport. Explosives are packed for transport in containers called “day boxes”. These transitory storage units must be made out of a combination of steel and wood. Smoking is prohibited in and around a vehicle transporting explosives. A minimum of two fire extinguishers are required per vehicle.
Hopefully the days of dynamite eating porcupines and random finds of high explosives are behind but one can never be totally sure.