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Preserving our Past, January: Dualine Powder Works explosion

Jan. 6, 2014

Thanksgiving 1872 Dualine

Powder Works explosion

By Tom Fehring:

On Thanksgiving Day in 1872 an explosion at the Dualine Powder Works on the Whitefish Bay toll road killed four people.

A November 30th article in the Milwaukee Sentinel reported the family of a Mr. Swain, a “well to-do farmer,” was greatly startled by the explosion that occurred “near the intersection of the section-line road within the Whitefish Bay turnpike.” The article goes on to say, “Mrs. Swain dropped a basket she had in her hand at the time and the dishes in the cupboard came to floor with a crash. Mr. Swain ... observed a cloud in the direction of what was then known as the ‘power-mill.’ Upon his arrival at the edge of the bluff not a vestige of the building was to be seen.  On descending he discovered the blackened remains of two of the workmen.”

Dualine powder was an explosive compound first discovered by Lieutenant Dittmar of the US Artillery.  The powder is a mixture of sawdust and nitroglycerine that is either treated with a mixture of nitric and sulfuric acids, or saturated with a solution of nitrate of potash.  John W. Cummings, obtained the rights to manufacture the compound locally.  He constructed a temporary wooden structure for its manufacture, apparently built partially into the bluff in, or near, Whitefish Bay. 

In 1871, a year previous to the accident, Cummings orchestrated several demonstrations in Milwaukee’s Menomonee Valley to show that the compound could be “handled with impunity,” insisting that it was harmless “under ordinary circumstances.” There was some truth in this, as the powder would simply puff out without a percussive fuse. Based in part on these demonstrations, Cummings was able to enlist several local investors to his enterprise.

The cause of the explosion has been subject of speculation. It occurred during the coldest day of the season, which may have contributed to the incident. While nitroglycerin is not very sensitive in frozen form (it freezes at 55.8F), it can be particularly hazardous to handle when it starts to thaw and the frozen crystals come into contact with the liquid form.   

The accounts of the injuries caused by the explosion are gruesome. The four individuals that perished included Michael Sackreiter, Jr., who was then only 15. His father, who had stopped to visit his son on his way home from work, was also killed in the incident. Two of the individuals in the plant were thrown over 100 feet.

Efforts to establish the exact location of the tragedy have proven somewhat elusive. In 1955, Whitefish Bay’s Lewis W. Herzog attempted to pin-down the location and was frustrated by the fact that farmer Swain owned property in both Whitefish Bay and what is now Shorewood. Accounts, which placed the site three miles north of the City, could apply to either of Swain’s properties, depending upon where the City-boundary at the time is defined. If the incident occurred in Whitefish Bay, the structure would have been near the intersection of Henry Clay and the lake bluff.

The original structure was only partially demolished by the 1872 explosion, and was considered extremely hazardous. Three years later a planned fire, designed to demolish the remaining structure, resulted in an explosion that shattered the remaining building and reportedly “shook the earth for miles about.” See adjacent article from the Milwaukee Sentinel (19-Aug-1875).








About "Preserving Our Past"

The Village of Whitefish Bay is a community of residential neighborhoods, punctuated with an attractive walking district of fine stores, excellent schools and vibrant houses of worship. It is filled with homes and other buildings that are architecturally rich, well-designed and maintained, and diverse in character.

Its residents have contributed much to the broad cultural, political, economic and social history of the area. And its residents are interested in maintaining their connections with an historic past.

To help maintain these connections, the Historic Preservation Commission is in the process of identifying buildings and historic sites that it believes may be architecturally significant or historic. On a weekly basis we will feature a building or site from our inventory.



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