April 15, 2010 in Washington Voices

1890 explosion killed 26 at railroad site

By Correspondent
File photo

A Jeep sits on its roof after a roll-over collision at Sprague Avenue and Division Street in 2009. In 1890, an explosion during construction work at the intersection killed 26 workers. It was the site of the Northern Pacific Railway freight yards.
(Full-size photo)

Map of this story's location

The intersection which divides the city into north and south, east and west – is Division Street and Sprague Avenue. It is not a happy place.

A lot of unfortunate things have taken place there, from numerous fender-benders and trucks getting stuck under the railroad viaduct to the March 1 hit-and-run accident which took the life of Spokane bicycle rider David Squires. Sadly, that intersection has an especially dark claim to fame in the city’s history – it is the location of what has been called Spokane’s greatest human tragedy, an explosion which claimed the lives of approximately 26 men on Sept. 6, 1890.

The exact number of railroad laborers who died working on a rock-cut there that day was never precisely determined, but 24 were accounted for and two presumed dead at what was then the construction site of the Northern Pacific Railway freight yards.

Newspaper accounts told the story: Late in the afternoon dynamite charges were put in place, as was customary, and scheduled to go off at 6 p.m., after the grading crews had left for the day. But that day, the more than 200 pounds of dynamite exploded prematurely, blowing apart several men and burying the rest under 400 to 500 cubic yards of pulverized rock. It happened at 5:40 p.m.

Newspaper accounts were filled with descriptions much more blunt and detailed than mainstream media allows today. The Spokane Falls Review described initial survivor Hugh Hayes, whose “face was mashed beyond recognition,” noting he was “an old man and will probably die.” (He died two days later.) There were gruesome descriptions of headless corpses and worse. Some of the stories were poignant, such as that in The Chronicle of a man, identified as a young Swede, whose brother asked if he could have his dead brother’s watch, which he described as “an old-country timepiece.” The account continued: “The watch was found and was ticking regularly, although the body of the owner had been badly crushed.”

Care had to be taken in digging for survivors, as a number of unexploded charges still lay in the rubble, making rescue work precarious. According to one newspaper report, “At one point faint groans could be heard issuing from under a pile of rock, but soon all was still.”

Most of the men who died in the explosion were poor immigrants from Austria, Hungary, Italy and elsewhere, and many lived in an area of the city known as Shantytown. It was a time when each worker wore a brass tag with a number on it, and when a foreman wanted to call a man, he would call out his number. Remains of 15 men were buried in unmarked graves in a common plot at Greenwood Memorial Terrace, their burials paid for by Smith and Howell, the railroad project contractor.

A grand jury investigation found no fault in the explosion, and while there were theories about what had happened, it was commonly believed it occurred as the result of concussion, that a foreman tamped the dynamite hard with a steel rod.

Interestingly, while coverage of the event yielded very long stories, it lasted but a few days, with work resuming at the site within a week and little mention ever made again. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s when accounts of the event were discovered in archives and an effort made to acknowledge the human tragedy.

In 1996 the Fairmount Memorial Association, operator of many of the cemeteries in Spokane, erected a basalt and granite monument near where the men are buried, listing their names as well as those others known to have died in the explosion.

Voices correspondent Stefanie Pettit can be reached by e-mail at upwindsailor@comcast.net. Previous columns are available at spokesman.com/ columnists/

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