There were no major battles waged in the Pittsburgh area during the Civil War, but Pittsburgh was still a vital part of the war effort. The Allegheny Arsenal was a key munitions producing hub for the Union. At their peak in 1862, the Arsenal was churning out 128,000 cartridges a day for the war effort, mostly by women and children (as young as 14). Women and children, their numbers of employment swelled to 1,189 by January 1862, were preferred because of their lighter touch and smaller hands that could roll the cartridges easier — plus they could be paid less…just like today (sad trombone sound). A typical daily wage was anywhere from 50 cents to 1 dollar, based on skill level and production level, for 12 hours of work each day for six days a week.
The Allegheny Arsenal was located in Lawrenceville and bounded by the railroad tracks by the Allegheny River, 39th Street, Penn Avenue, and 40th Street. Butler Street bisected the complex and separated the munitions plant from the military barracks. As a military complex, there was a formal changing of the guard at the main entrance on Butler StreetAlthough never confirmed 100%, there are strong indications that there were a series of underground tunnels that allowed the shipment of munitions underground down to the awaiting barges on the River, in addition to tunnels to allow materials to be spirited around Lawrenceville.
Unfortunately, disaster struck on September 17, 1862 at 2 p.m. when an explosion caused by some stray sparks caused the entire Arsenal to explode, killing 78 workers in the process. Most were women contributing to the cause, but the child labor meant that some of the 78 were also children. The working theory is that a horse’s metal shoe struck a cobblestone during a delivery of wooden barrels of fresh gunpowder, causing a spark that in turn lit some stray gunpowder scattered around the outskirts of the complex. This caused a chain reaction that eventually spread to the Arsenal and exploded the munitions facility.
Here’s an excerpt from the Daily Post about the accident. Imagine reading this over your breakfast the next morning:
Of the main building nothing remained but a heap of smoking debris. The ground about was strewn with fragments of charred wood, torn clothing, balls, caps, grape shot, exploded shells, hoes, fragments of dinner baskets belonging to the inmates, steel springs from the girls’ hoop skirts, cartridge paper, sheet iron and melted lead. Two hundred feet from the laboratory was picked up the body of one young girl, terrible mangled; another body was seen to fly in the air and separate into two parts.
Colonel John Symington was brought before a military tribunal for the accident, citing sloppy procedures and negligence. However, many witnesses recanted their testimony and Symington was let off without being charged. He eventually retired one year later, so feel free to draw your own conclusions.
Today when you come across the 40th Street Bridge, the site of the munitions plant is the existing baseball field next to Arsenal Middle School. The only remaining building on the historical landmark site remaining is the Powder Magazine building, built in 1814, which is used as a maintenance shed for the ballfield.
The area was designated by the City of Pittsburgh as a historical landmark in 1977 and by the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation in 2003. Lawrenceville has become Ground Zero for hipsters in Pittsburgh of late, but on your way to dinner or a drinking establishment, take a moment’s pause for one of the City’s most destructive accidents.