Excerpted from Businesses in Emporium – Riley Murray, as told to Frances Schwab Murray
Gun Cotton & Picric Acid Plant (1914)
Emporium was known as the powder town. It was here dynamite was made for the Panama Canal. So, when the United States wanted to build a gun cotton and picric acid plant to manufacture it for use overseas during world War I, they chose Emporium, knowing the town had all the requirements needed: men who knew the powder business and railroad outlets to all lake and seaports. At that time we had trains running steadily to Erie, Buffalo, NY & Philadelphia. The tannery was located where the high school and football field are now built. The tannery had a railroad spur to their plant so the government built from the tannery up the flat to where the bridge crosses into Rich Valley, using the entire flat between the Rich Valley Road and the creek. The grounds were enclosed by a 6 foot wire fence with barbed wire fence topping and armed guards patrolled that fence every hour of the day and night. The gun cotton did not explode as did the dynamite, but when anything went wrong it was an instant flash of fire. Buildings were built with outside chutes to slide down for a quick getaway, but few men made it to the door, it went too fast, and at night it would light up the sky like daytime as far away as Cameron. Picric acid was a terrible acid. I think it was used to make mustard gas. As long as it was made here we never had any birds, nor leaves on the trees. It ate the window curtains full of holes. On damp days, if you went outside, your eyes would burn and you would begin to cough. The men who worked at the picric plant, skin and hair turned yellow, the red heads turned green. Oh, we had all colors of people up here in the old hometown. The married men’s wives with white hair had the same color, too. Wages were very high so there was no trouble getting workers. Although they were here for a short time, they came by the coach carload, but shortly left by the baggage car. Few knew their names except the railroad men who had to send the bodies back to their hometowns. Some of the masonry works still can be found on the flat where the plants were built. They had special, cave-like forts built into the hillside on the opposite side of the plants where they tested out the gun cotton.
I never worked there. At that time I was a boilermaker on the railroad at the roundhouse, worked there until 1922. Then I went to the Hercules Powder plant, worked there until they moved to New Jersey. Then I went to Pennsylvania Powder, worked until the end, as they never rebuilt after the explosion of January 1957. Hercules & Pennsylvania Powder made dynamite and gelatin while the new plant made smokeless and picric acid. At the smokeless plant they searched the men going in and out every day. They didn’t allow anyone to take pictures from the road—or close by. So far as I know, no pictures of the plant is around.
Letter to Riley Murray, Jr., eldest son of Frances Schwab Murray
Postmarked January 12, 1957
Dear Bus & family,
I’ve been trying all week to get my wits together long enough to write, but after they’ve been jarred out of you, and each night you relive the terrible ordeal all over again…I’m not much good at anything right now. Dad [ed. note: Riley Murray, Sr.] went down to the plant Thursday morn. They’ve started to clean up, got it going pretty good (the clean up), but this deep snow and terrific cold is hard on those guys who have always worked indoors, so they freeze out quick.
Monday morning Dad left the house at a quarter to 4—taxi had to get him as the car was being fixed. I went back to bed, but just couldn’t get to sleep. Dad’s strange actions that morning had me on edge [ed. note: He had strange premonitions]. I lay on the davenport bed (we’ve been sleeping downstairs since Christmas), looking down at the plant thru the big window, when this terrible big flash lit the sky. I jumped and just hit the floor, half way between the bed and dining room table when I was knocked into the birdcage. The things on the one dining room window by the bathroom went onto the floor. I was looking out of the window when you could see dirt and rubbish high in the air.
Dad was sweeping snow off the drums at the box house when it let go. He was thrown by the concussions, rolled almost to the change house and then back. He tried to crawl under the drums, out of the way of falling stuff. When it quit coming down, he ran and blew the whistle and it was just seconds until it tooted. Then he called the office to send doctors and ambulances—Connie [ed. note: Erickson] was in the office, it took all the windows out there--the sink off the wall and Connie went outdoors under the porch.
The one paper I sent you had a pretty good account of what happened, but no mention in any paper of the 3 men who were the real heroes, and none of them worked at the plant either. Erwin [ed. note: Frances’ youngest son] ran right into everything, looking for Dad and started to help him to get air to Paul Streich and Charlie Tauses in the glycerin mix. The air started to go so Erwin called by his shortwave (he just got it at Christmas). Byron [ed. note: Frances’ middle son] was on the one end of the office (plant) so they rushed a compressor from the borough plant down. Erwin and Ray Erwin took it while Dad and Bobbie Baker cut in the lines. Erwin said when he asked Charlie how much air he had to have, he said, “40 pounds, but I can do with less, but if it goes below 20, that’s it for us all.” Several times the compressor balked, and they never could get it up to 40, but Ray and Erwin stood there and worked it along. Erwin said he was in the South Pacific and scared a good many times, but never as bad as when that compressor balked after what Charlie had said. But he’d made up his mind, the compressor would never go below 20 if Ray and he had to move it by hand—an impossible thing to do. But he said he moved beams and things Monday all by himself—he couldn’t even budge on Tuesday.
Byron said when Erwin called by shortwave and said you can relax now, we ran her thru [ed. note: i.e., using the compressed air, they safely mixed the glycerin with the acid], Smithy’s [ed. note: William Smith] legs let him down and he went to the floor. When Erwin came up to the office, Byron said he was as white as a sheet and soaking wet with sweat, as was Ray, Charlie and Paul. Charlie told us last night, he never thought Erwin and Ray could pull them thru after the air stopped coming once. But Paul Streich said., “Steady, Charlie. Murray’s a damn good mechanic, he’ll get her going steady.” Byron stayed down at the plant office on the shortwave until 4:30.
Anyone who had their radio on here in town would have been drove crazy by the telecast Frank Berman was putting put. I was lucky to get my call thru to you as soon as I did for later in the day, no calls could get thru. Poor JoAnn [Schwab] heard the news over the radio and she tried to call all day, didn’t get thru until 11:30 Monday night. I got calls from the Epleys in Kentucky Tuesday morning—Philadelphia and N. J. Monday night, Oil City and Bradford Monday. This phone was a madhouse for the entire day and for the first hour every woman who had a relative at the plant, called me, thinking Dad would be able to call before their husbands could. Smithy was just leaving for work, he was just going out the door, when he was thrown off the porch. He had intended to go out at 6 and help the fellows in the mix house , but he had taken home a lot of book work and had stayed up until one-thirty working on it, overslept—so missed being the 4th one.
Whiting Herrick’s place was really banged up worse than anywhere else. He has started a petition to have the plant stopped from rebuilding, but I don’t think he’ll have to bother, as it would have to be rebuilt from start. They found 23 buildings now has been destroyed or damaged and the one magazine they thought was ok, they found had the door blown off entirely, even the frame (the lower one).
They found a lot more of the remains Thursday and had a joint funeral service Friday night at Coppersmith’s, we were there. Dad was up this a.m. 9 o’clock. They took Wykoff to Sinnemahoning to bury. Will return for Knisley, take him to Castle Garden. Then Barton to Lock Haven where military services will be held. He had 3 small children, 3 girls, youngest 5 weeks old.
Geo. Streich, you remember him, he gave up the powder plant a year ago this coming spring. He was so glad Monday he’d left, but he didn’t stay around long. He died from a heart attack, 2 o’clock yesterday morning, so we are going to see him tonight at Coppersmiths.
Dad’s back still bothers him, but is getting better-he feels better now that he can be busy. Minard Sprung has a punctured lung. He has tube drainage, but is coming along good. Walker is up walking around the hospital, all the rest are home.