Thursday, March 29, 2012

The British Chemical Company Explosion, Trenton

The remains of the British Chemical Company, which became a destination for a motorcycle ride in November 2009.



I stumbled on this site while visiting Ontario Abandonned Places.  Further research determined that the company manufactured artillery, rifles and small arms ammunition.  Industry was attracted to Trenton because its waterways permitted the development of cheap hydro-electric power.  In 1915, the British government financed and built the British Chemical Company on the site of the old Gilmour saw mill.  The plant covered 2000 acres and contained 120 buildings, and at the time was the largest ammunition factory in the Commonwealth.  On Thanksgiving Day, 1918, a fire started and ignited explosives, which blew the building apart and broke windows in houses miles away.  A subsequent fire raged throughout the night.  Eva Curtis, the town's telephone operator stayed at her post throughout the night for emergency calls despite glass blowing past her. She along with seven others were rewarded the medal of the Order of the British Empire for staying in the danger zone throughout horrors of the night.

Here's an account from the Perth Courier:

FATALITY IN CHEMICAL PLANT AT TRENTON
One of the most shocking tragedies to effect Perth in recent years was the explosion in the plant of the British Chemical Company at Trenton exactly at 1:45 Friday morning last, in which three Perth boys lost their lives.  Philip Doynes MacDonnell, son of Mr. and Mrs. P.J.C. MacDonnell, Perth; Edwin Charles Noonan, son of Mr. H.T. Noonan, Perth, and James Bernard Smith, son of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Smith, Perth.  These three boys went to Trenton only the previous Wednesday and engaged with the Chemical Company, commencing work on the night of the following Thursday.  The explosion occurred a couple of hours later after commencing work in a small separate building known as the “solvent, recovery” department.  What the cause was has not yet been ascertained, but it was probably due to chemicals forming an explosive compound.  Seven men were engaged in the building at the time.  They were Philip MacDonnell, Edward Noonan, Bernard Smith, Perth, two McLean boys of Ottawa, S. Mentha Of Quebec, and a boy named Norris, who came from New Brunswick.  There was a large powder bin at one end of the building and Philip MacDonnell and Bernard Smith were standing on one side of this bin near a narrow gauge track on which a small car was run, conveying the powder out of the building.  The two McLean boys were standing on the other side of the bin and, not so close to it.  S. Mentha Was also near the bin.  Edwin Noonan and the Norris boy were further away from the bin, standing near the entrance.  The small box car was being reloaded with powder when suddenly and explosion occurred, which could be heard for miles around, and a sheet of flame flew in the air over a hundred feet, carrying the roof of the building with it.  Fire broke out immediately and no one was allowed near the building until the flames had subsided, for fear of more explosions.  The MacDonnell, Smith and Mentha boys, who were either stunned or killed outright, were burned in the building.  Edwin Noonan was thrown some forty feet in the air, and the Norris boy also some distance in the air, but both were clear of flames when picked up.  The most miraculous escape, however, was that of the two McLean boys, who were near the powder bin.  The explosion seemed to go straight up in front of them, and other than being thrown some distance by the concussion and experiencing some severe bruises, they were able to be up and around again this week.  Edwin Noonan experienced terrible burns, his body being a mass of burns from the waist to the head and face.  He and the Norris boy were injured the most and were rushed to the private hospital maintained by the company.  Edwin was conscious soon afterwards and maintained great cheerfulness throughout.

From another source, 1920:


The details of the tragedy were explored in a 1980 book by John Melady entitled Explosion:  Trenton Disaster, a copy of which is held at the Quinte Branch of the Ontario Genealogical Society.

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

is this picture of the stone building in the water or is there another part I haven't discovered?

The Duke said...

I think this is part of one of the buildings that fronted the river. The area is full of mostly concrete remains of other parts of the buildings, along with mounds of trash deposited by other more thoughtless visitors, the scourge of our planet everywhere you go. There are more building remains on the east side of the river, looking like they might have been designed to store explosives.

Roger S said...

I am a local and have searched this property for years. May I make some corrections. The plant covered only 200 acres with 120 bldgs. A saw mill was located there previous. Th e old stone structures along river were never part of the plan They were for a hydro station with the sawmill earlier. The ruins are slowly disappearing . Much of the property is private now.

H. E. Communications said...

The munitions complex covered 255 acres with 204 buildings. You can read all about it in the 2nd Edition of Author John Melady's EXPLOSION-TRENTON DISASTER. This riveting account is available for sale, along with a free disc of many pictures of The British Chemical Co. before it's terrifying destruction.

Unknown said...

The ruin's in the picture. It use to be a hot spot when I was younger. We would swim and follow the current where it would be a whirlpool. Then jump off of it. Yet not knowing the real danger under our feet. Rumor has it that yes it was the Munitions plant. Yes there is under ground passages. All does make sence. Kids, teens even adults fell in at the dam. Their body's were found down river. If you fall in at the dam, there really is no way by our sights of this being possible because the rubble crosses 1 side to the other. Unless there is under ground passages. Be nice if this could be confirmed. We need local divers to comb the area. With that information, the real story can be told.

Willy Brummell said...

The ruin's in the picture. It use to be a hot spot when I was younger. We would swim and follow the current where it would be a whirlpool. Then jump off of it. Yet not knowing the real danger under our feet. Rumor has it that yes it was the Munitions plant. Yes there is under ground passages. All does make sence. Kids, teens even adults fell in at the dam. Their body's were found down river. If you fall in at the dam, there really is no way by our sights of this being possible because the rubble crosses 1 side to the other. Unless there is under ground passages. Be nice if this could be confirmed. We need local divers to comb the area. With that information, the real story can be told.

Roger S said...

Those ruins are still there and have absolutey nothing to do with the chemical plant. They were part of a power plant jointly operated by the Town and Gilmour lumber years earlier. All of the existing munitions ruins are on the east side near the water plant and the hill.

The Duke said...

Thanks for this. When I tried to find them, I could absolutely no one locally who knew anything about them or the explosion. So I had to go looking by guess and by golly.

Unknown said...

The property isn't private maybe city property but not privately owned. People still go to the point fishing.

Get your facts straight said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Get your facts straight said...

If you drown at the dam it's because the waterways are open and the current is strong and the water level rises. My best friend drowned there. When I was a kid. You can make it all the way down the river but only when the water level is high. So it is possible. There are debris all the way across that are visible when the river is low.

Get your facts straight said...

I grew up there and used to swim there all summer even camped right beside the ruins. I know every square inch or that area. There is an under water tunnel under the ruins that are in the water or there used to be. When the current was strong and river high we jumped off the ruins and used to catch the corner of the building. If we didn't we would get sucked under by an under tow bang around a bit and pop out of the other side. It was so scary. We no idea what it was that we went into but now i do. I never thouggt about tunnels being there. I think it would be a great idea to send divers down to see what we have. The ruins should be a tourist destination.