Next month marks the 109th anniversary of the Rand Powder Mill Explosion, a series of blasts at a Fayette County black powder factory that killed 18 people, shattered windows in Uniontown, and shook buildings as far away as Greensburg. The Pennsylvania Room maintains photos of the September 9, 1905 disaster that were taken by E.W. Hague, a Uniontown druggist who rushed to offer his aid and document the disaster in Fairchance.
Upon arriving at the mill, this was the scene that awaited Mr. Hague:
At first, the detonation was mistaken for a mine explosion by many Fayette County citizens. The majority of the victims were mill employees, some of them still teenagers; a child who had just arrived to deliver his father’s lunch pail was also counted among the dead. As Franklin LaClava observed in his 2010 article in Westmoreland History, local war veterans might have found the gruesome sights and smells to be reminiscent of a battlefield.
The Courier reported the presence of quite a few “relic hunters” eager to scoop up souvenirs: dynamite fuses, mangled machinery, and even body parts.
The death toll could have been significantly higher. Just seconds before the powder detonated, a B&O passenger train rolled by the mill. While its windows were blown out, it remained on the track and its passengers escaped with nothing more than cuts and bruises. In another stroke of luck, two nearby railroad cars that were heavily loaded with dynamite were unaffected by the blasts and could be safely towed away from the scene.
Debris stalled trolley service and disabled telegraph wires. There was no plan in place for such a disaster; the crowd milled about the scene with little purpose but to observe the devastation. As the Courier put it, “Hundreds of people swarmed over the place, doing what they could, but with small results.” The lack of direction was compounded by the loss of both the mill’s manager and foreman, the former injured and the latter killed.
As one would expect, there was confusion for a time as to the identities of the missing and deceased. At least one young man, William Martin, was first reported dead before turning up safe.
Rumors flew. Was the destruction of the Rand Powder Mill an act of sabotage? Officials at the plant surely thought so. The pattern of explosions seemed inconsistent with the accidental ignition of loose black powder. At the coroner’s inquest, a controlled explosion using conditions similar to those of the mill failed to match the speed or ferocity of the September 1905 disaster. Possible culprits included unhappy or careless employees and townspeople who were discontented with the mill’s location. (Its close proximity to Fairchance had been a point of contention.)
Today, a monument to the victims stands in Fairchance Cemetery. The disaster remains a mystery, however. No cause for the explosion was ever determined, no perpetrator was ever charged, and the mill was never rebuilt.