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Albany’s Explosive History with Dynamite, Part II

After a disastrous 1883 powder plant explosion, several more followed.

“There was a terrific explosion this morning at the works of the Giant Powder Company in West Berkeley across the bay from San Francisco. Seven distinct shocks were felt and 300 tons of giant powder brought death and destruction to the immediate neighborhood and caused great damage to Oakland and San Francisco. People for some moments, in both cities, were panic stricken.”

Such was the introduction of a New York Times article from 1892 describing the last explosion to occur at the dynamite manufacturing site at Fleming’s Point (site of today’s racetrack).

For some years previously, things had been going relatively well for Giant Powder Company, the first manufacturer of dynamite in the United States. After the disastrous 1883 explosion at its Fleming’s Point factory, it had rebuilt more extensively at the site, incorporating a number of safety enhancements that allowed it to operate without incident for a number of years.

However, the location, which also housed a chemical manufacturing plant, was becoming congested by the 1890s and more vulnerable.

On the morning of July 9, 1892, a large, sudden explosion occurred in the nitroglycerine house where workers were cleaning up. Another six explosions followed which, along with several fires, leveled both the powder and chemical plants.

Five men were killed outright, a boy was blown through a roof and another man was hurled into the bay. More than a dozen others were injured.

The accident, which the general foreman of the plant later claimed involved more than 1 million pounds of explosives, was one of the largest that occurred in the Bay Area. It caused substantial damage in Berkeley and Oakland, broke numerous windows in San Francisco and, according to some reports, was even felt in Sacramento.

“Immediately after the explosion, the town of West Berkeley from a distance resembled the site of an actual volcano,” reported the Times. “Dozens of private houses in the vicinity were partially destroyed and all along the road from Oakland to West Berkeley Station were damaged buildings.”

Giant Powder Company was forced to move further away, and found a more suitable location by merging with another company operating at Pt. Pinole.  

Meanwhile, relations had strained between Giant and Egbert Judson, a prominent figure in the U.S. dynamite business who had helped organize Giant Powder Company and patented some powders. He also ran the Judson & Sheppard (also known as San Francisco) Chemical Works, which had been located next to the Giant plant at Fleming’s Point and supplied the plant with necessary acids.

Giant was unhappy that Judson had begun selling powders it felt competed with its own. When Giant began manufacturing its own acids around 1890, Judson responded by selling his interest in the company and starting his own dynamite business, which he established on the north and west sides of Albany Hill.

Here, the Judson Dynamite & Powder Company, later acquired by DuPont, operated explosion-free for several years.

In September 1898, the company began manufacturing gelatin dynamite. One month later, its gelatin mixing house blew up, killing the plant’s superintendent.

The firm immediately rebuilt the mixing house, but it was destroyed again by another explosion after operating for just two days. Its third attempt was successful.

It was likely around this time that the eucalyptus trees—still present today—were planted on the hill in an attempt to buffer residents from the blasts.

The Judson plant manufactured dynamite on Albany Hill until 1905, when a chain of explosions rocked the area and set fire to several buildings, rousing the ire of local residents. The plant was then dismantled and the property sold.

This would be the last of the great dynamite blasts in the Albany area, where the era of high explosive disasters had finally come to a close.

Everybody makes mistakes ... ! If there's something in this article you think should be corrected, or if something else is amiss, call editor Emilie Raguso at 510-459-8325 or email her at emilier@patch.com.

John Galt April 26, 2011 at 04:40 PM
Karen Sorensen, Thank you for all your interesting articles about Albany!
Karen Sorensen April 27, 2011 at 01:27 AM
You're welcome. I enjoy writing them.
Treacy Malloy April 28, 2011 at 11:13 PM
I'm amazed. I lived in Albany for over 22 years, and never knew any of this! Very interesting article - thanks.
Christopher R. Jackson August 31, 2011 at 03:49 PM
Great article! The photo of the explosion was amazing--where did you find it? Chris Jackson
Karen Sorensen August 31, 2011 at 06:11 PM
Glad you enjoyed the article. The Albany Library is the source of the photo. They have a wonderful historical photo collection.

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