This week marks the 110th anniversary of the man-made disaster that left residents in Kenosha, Racine and Lake counties literally shaking. All heard a terrific roar and those outside in the unseasonably warm March night air saw a flash of light. They ran out of their homes, some digging their way out of rubble.
At the Orpheum Theater in Downtown Kenosha, patrons were watching an evening show when the entertainment was halted and people were told to leave and hurry to the lake front. Similar evacuations took place in Chicago theaters.
What could cause such pandemonium?
One hundred and ten years ago this week, on the evening of March 9, 1911, the Laflin Rand Powder Plant with its 2.6 million pounds of black powder and five railroad box cars containing 560,000 pounds of dynamite blew sky high.
The black powder manufacturing plant, owned by the DuPont Company, sat on 190 acres between what today is Highway 50 and Highway C, just east of Bristol. With five minutes of the first explosion, the entire plant of 40 buildings was engulfed in flames.
As industrial accidents go, the series of massive explosions that evening at the plant was one of epic proportions. Because there were multiple explosions, many thought it was an earthquake with aftershocks.
Only one person died in the catastrophe (10 men were working in the plant), but more than 200 people were injured. Two men in the Truesdell community (in the 7600 block of Highway 50) were injured by flying glass, one loosing an eye, the other an ear.
The blast rendered most of the buildings uninhabitable in a five-mile radius of the plant. That would roughly be the area between Highway 142 and Highway 173 in Illinois, from Bain Avenue (30th Avenue) to Highway 45. It also broke most all the windows in that area.
Closer to the epicenter, nearly every house, barn, shed and business building within a ¾-mile radius of the plant was flattened, leaving hundreds without homes.
In Kenosha, every factory had broken windows and pieces of machinery thrown off their foundations; the sidewalks Downtown crunched with the sound of broken glass; chimneys toppled; windows on a passenger train traveling through Waukegan were shattered. The stain glass windows of St. George’s Church just north of Downtown Kenosha were broken.
The concussion was felt as far away as Cleveland, Ohio, Clinton, Iowa and Kalamazoo, Mich.
The 1911 explosion looms large in Kenosha County history and even larger in Pleasant Prairie, where it impacted the development of the town in the early years of the 20th century.
The Pleasant Prairie History Museum, 3875 116th St., has a permanent exhibit on the disaster.
Museum Manager Kate Bennett says the episode was just one of a series of incidents at the plant that kept the people of Pleasant Prairie on edge.
People in the area lived in constant fear of a big explosion. There were some close calls. In the 13 years between 1898 and the 1911 blast 22 people died in accidents and explosions at the plant.
“There is a larger story to be told about the powder plant in Pleasant Prairie. It’s a story of a big rich company who is just here to just reap the profits regardless of how it affects the local community,” said Bennett. “I think there is something we can learn from that today.”
The business here started in 1898 as Laflin Rand Powder Company. The black powder manufactured at the plant was used in coal mines, quarries and railroad expansion. It was purchased in 1902 by the powerful DuPont Company, but continued to use its original name.
Five years later, the U.S. Justice Department initiated ant-trust proceedings against DuPont. The courts ruled against the company in 1911, forcing DuPont to divest many acquisitions.
DuPont created a spin off, the Hercules Powder Company and transferred the Pleasant Prairie plant to it’s holdings.
Then it was back to business as usual.
One of the most dangerous jobs at the plant was that of a packer. A packer’s clothing would get imbued with powder residue. The company installed open water tanks in strategic places on the property in case a packer caught on fire, he could extinguish himself in water quickly.
“The community didn’t want the Powder Plant to be rebuilt after that 1911 explosion,” Bennett said.
According to a 1913 report in the Kenosha Evening News, the Kenosha County Board of Supervisors met to discuss deeming the plant a public nuisance.
“I guessing that the big money of DuPont was able to shut that idea down,” mused Bennett.
Plant a nuisance and menace
It wasn’t the first time residents had tried taking action to close the plant.
After a number of explosions on May 19, 1906, citizens in Pleasant Prairie were opposed to the rebuilding of the damaged structures at the plant.
A Kenosha Evening News article dated Monday, May 21, 1906 reported residents were looking to the court “to declare the powder plant a nuisance and a menace to the lives and safety of the people residing in the neighborhood.”
In a prophetic statement, the newspaper said that the people in Kenosha were beginning to fear the explosions and after this latest 1906 incident had “grave fears that should an explosion which would include the entire plant, Kenosha would be pretty badly shaken up with a great loss of property.”
The operating powder plant and the fear it created was a deterrent to residents remaining in the town and kept out potential residents.
Between the federal censuses of 1910 and 1920, Pleasant Prairie had a 35 percent decrease in its population while most towns in the county had seen large increases in population. During the same time period, Kenosha nearly doubled its population from 21,000 to 40,000.
Bennett said although some of that decrease in population could have come from Kenosha annexing Pleasant Prairie land, it was likely the plant played a factor in the decrease in the population in that decade.
The Hercules Powder Plant closed for good in 1930. “They closed when the shipping costs to ship to either coast ended the profitability of the plant,” Bennett said.