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The Giant Powder Company

Contributed to “Exactly Opposite,” BHS newsletter, Winter 2012, by Philip L. Gale

The history of the Giant Powder Company in Berkeley was part of the exhibit Vanished: Berkeley's Lost Businesses and Institutions at the Berkeley Historical Society. After an explosion in San Francisco in 1879, the company found a new place for their factory at the Fleming Point in what was then unincorporated West Berkeley (now Golden Gate Fields in Albany). Moving the factory did not stop the blasts. On April 16, 1880, 24 workers were killed. There were more explosions with lives lost in 1883, 1886, and 1887.

In 1892, the blast was so large that most of the plate glass windows were broken in Berkeley and at the University. At the exhibit, we mounted the two-plus pages of coverage in the San Francisco Call Bulletin of that fateful day. Here is a scientific description of the destruction by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (September 1892).

“Powder Explosion at West Berkeley, July 9, 1892”

By Edward S. Holden

The following account of the great explosion is copied from Industry for August, 1892:*

“The Giant Powder Works plant, near West Berkeley, a suburban place on the northeastern coast of the bay, about eight miles from San Francisco, was blown up at nine o’clock A. M. on the ninth of July, and it is believed to be the most extensive explosion of the kind that has ever happened. Being situated on a spit of land projecting out into the bay there was a free course for air disturbance to the city, and other surroundings on the southern and western side of the bay, and windows were crushed for a distance of ten miles where no elevated land intervened. The air disturbance followed channels where the physical formation permitted horizontal flow, and even streets in the city seemed to have guided the lines of greatest effect.

“The loss of life was happily very slight compared with what might be expected, most of the people after the first explosion making their way to some distance, so that the force of the explosion passed over them. The number reported killed is less than ten, of whom all but three were Chinamen. It requires only a short time, and a little distance, to get without the active circle of explosions, which act upward at an angle of ten to twenty degrees, principally because of the material being partially below the surface of the ground, as in the case of magazines, also because the first effect is to excavate a pit the walls of which act as directing angles.

“The amount of material finished and in process is not known, but was certainly not less than one hundred tons, some reports say several hundred tons.”

In what follows I have collected and condensed a few typical accounts of the effects of the explosion. From these it is quite clear that the chief damage was done by an air-wave and that the wave transmitted through the ground was comparatively feeble. Dr. Becker of the U. S. Geological Survey makes the very pregnant suggestion that the air-wave was reflected from the surface of the water of the San Francisco Bay and thus deflected upwards against the face of the high hills on which the city is built. The powder works were themselves built on high bluffs. The explosion of anything like this amount of dynamite, if it had been buried in the ground, would have produced an earth-wave which would have been felt at Mount Hamilton. But with all the explosives above ground, as they were, no such effect could be expected. The wave-front of the air-wave must have contained an enormous energy, but when this wave-front reached the summit of Mount Hamilton it was so enlarged that no certain record of its passage can be found on our self-recording barometer sheets. I have, as yet, seen no notice of barometric observations of the air-wave in San Francisco and adjacent points though such may have been secured. The Technical Society of the Pacific Coast has considered this explosion at its meeting in July and reference is made to the Transactions of this Society (which I have not seen at the time of writing) for details. The present note is chiefly designed to record the fact that no effects from this tremendous explosion were felt at Mount Hamilton.

San Francisco. It is more than eight miles from Fleming’s Point to San Francisco, the line joining the two points being mostly over water. At least five distinct shocks were felt in the city and so severe were they that hundreds of panes of heavy plate glass were broken in the lower portion of the town. Immense iron-doors of warehouses were forced open. Buildings swayed to and fro sufficiently to frighten their occupants. Two of the iron doors of the Mint were twisted from their hinges. Every gas-light in the City Jail (and in other buildings) was extinguished by the rush of air after the last explosion.

Oakland Pier.The explosion was witnessed in part by one of our astronomers who was a passenger on the overland train, just entering Oakland Pier. The first explosion was comparatively slight but at a distance of seven miles there was a sharp report and at the same instant the heavy Pullman car was rocked sidewise. Emerging from behind an obstruction, Fleming’s Point was in clear view across the Bay. Suddenly a sheet of flame rose at least 100 feet, and about 20 or 25 seconds later the report reached the train, the car was very violently rocked, and the windows rattled. The last two shocks occurred a few minutes later, when the passengers were on the boat in the slip. Their intensity was very much greater than that of the first shocks. The reports were sharp and strong, the buildings creaked under the great strain, and the ferry boat rocked very perceptibly though it was protected by the buildings from the direct air-wave.

In all cases the report and the shock were simultaneous, showing that the shock was transmitted by the air and not through the water.

Oaklandis about 8 miles distant.Thousands of panes of window-glass were shattered in private houses, but no serious damage was done to buildings or persons. At the Chabot Observatory, Mr. Burckhalter’s earthquake instrument gave a small mark like a v. An earthquake giving a mark like this would be a small affair.

Berkeley.The State University is 4 miles distant. Nearly all the window-glass in the college buildings was destroyed. As it was vacation-time the earthquake instruments were not (I believe) in operation and no record of the disturbance was obtained.

East Oakland.Mr. Blinn’s earthquake instrument had its pen thrown entirely off the glass plate. A pipe lying on a shelf in his observatory was thrown to the floor. Mr. Blinn writes that “a great air-wave accompanied the explosion, though no mention of this appears in the papers. I was told of a man in East Berkeley who was working on a lumber-pile, which was thrown down with him, and he says the air-wave threw it over and not the shock of the ground.”

Healdsburgis 55 miles distant. A distinct shock was felt here, which was unlike that of an earthquake. It was called an “air-wave” in the first telegrams.

Sonoma is 25 miles distant. Panes of window-glass were broken here.

Sacramento is 60 miles distant. No damage was reported, though the shock was sufficiently severe to cause persons to rush out of the very substantial Capitol building in terror.

San Rafael is 13 miles distant.Buildings were slightly damaged.

Duncan’s Mills is 50 miles distant. The shocks were distinct and were supposed to be earthquakes.

Mount Hamilton is 50 miles distant and 4200 feet higher, with many ranges of hills lying between.No record appeared on the large Ewing seismograph. The duplex instrument shows a very small mark which is possibly due at least in part, to the explosion. It is, however, so small that it may be entirely due to the shifting of the pen by temperature, etc. I have examined the sheets of the Draper Self- Registering Barometer and find an exceedingly small change in the pencil line a little after 3 pm, but it is very doubtful if this change corresponds to the arrival of the air-wave, since there are other such marks on the same sheet at other times of this day.

After this blast, the Giant Powder Company decided they needed to look for a more rural location where less damage can be done. They relocated to Point Pinole, where they produced dynamite until sometime after World War II.


* Reprinted by permission of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific ( Courtesy of JST)



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