A biography of Pierre Samuel du Pont, founder of Longwood Gardens, usually begins with the sudden death of his father in a plant explosion in 1884. That was a major event in Pierre’s life who, at the young age of 14, stepped up to care for his nine younger brothers and sisters and his mother. They even called him “Dad” for the rest of their lives. His is an inspiring story, but so is that of his father, Lammot du Pont. If not for the explosion, the story of the Du Pont company and the people involved would have been very different.
Lammot (1831–1884) was tall, athletic, and raw-boned, who in his maturity reminded many of Abraham Lincoln with the calm, easy manner so often seen in physically imposing men. He had a degree in chemistry from the University of Penn and was widely considered to be the smartest and most capable of the living du Ponts.
The Du Pont company in Lammot’s time was led by “Boss” Henry du Pont from 1850 to his death in 1889, the longest tenure of any other. Autocratic and conservative, he was meticulous about detail and extremely frugal with money, still using quill pens and oil lamps long after steel nibs and electric lights were common. He believed profits were mostly determined by controlling the cost of production, and this characterized his executive style. You can see his restored office at the Hagley Museum, quill pens, oil lamps, and all.
In Boss Henry’s time, the Du Pont company only made one product: the old-fashioned black gunpowder shown in cowboy movies in wooden kegs. The world increasingly wanted the new high explosives: smokeless powder, nitroglycerin, dynamite, TNT.
He well deserved the nickname “Boss.” As head of the company, he was also head of the family. The family mansions, horses, and carriages were all owned by the company, and Boss Henry allotted them by need and status. The household servants were company employees, and they, too, were allotted to the families. This required a strong hand, and Boss Henry was well up to the task.
Lammot struggled in the company as heir-apparent and second-in-command, not formally, but by consensus. There was no official hierarchy—just Boss Henry and everyone else. But unofficially, Boss Henry was Mr. Inside, happily taking care of the day-to-day minutiae and Lammot was Mr. Outside, buying up rivals, forcing others out of business, and controlling prices through the Gunpowder Trade Association, all perfectly legal and considered good business practice in those days. He also worked with other companies, such as the railroad and barge companies for transportation of Du Pont products at preferred rates, and especially with Laflin & Rand, Du Pont’s supposed competitor, but more accurately their collaborator and partner in the gunpowder cartel. Many in Laflin & Rand’s management were du Pont family members.
Lammot realized the days of black gunpowder were ending and wanted to expand into the new high explosives of nitroglycerin and dynamite. Boss Henry was satisfied with the small improvements in gunpowder and thought the new technology was too dangerous (the fatal explosion proved him right). Finally, in 1880 when Lammot was 49, he had had enough. Lammot resigned from the Du Pont company and founded the Repauno Chemical Company in Gibbstown, NJ, to manufacture the high explosives. (The plant was on Repaupo Creek, across the Delaware River from Chester, but he thought “Repauno” sounded better.) He moved his family away from their Brandywine roots to a large home at 3500 Powelton Avenue in Philadelphia (that from Google Earth appears now to be a Drexel frat house). He set up the company’s office in downtown Philadelphia and visited the plant by crossing the Delaware River from Chester by a company ferry.
The break was not as clear-cut as it sounds. Lammot’s new company was two-thirds owned by the Du Pont company and one-third by Laflin & Rand. Some accounts say Boss Henry set up the new company and put Lammot in charge as a compromise. Both views are valid. Only later did Lammot negotiate with a reluctant Boss Henry to buy out half of Du Pont’s ownership so he would be equal partners with the other two. Lammot continued to oversee some of Du Pont’s partnerships with other companies. It was a fuzzy relationship involving both business and family.
Unlike the old gunpowder which was a simple blend of dry, naturally-occurring ingredients, nitroglycerin was manufactured by the chemical reaction of glycerin with a mixture of strong nitric and sulfuric acids. The reaction generated heat, and a rising temperature caused it to run faster and generate still more heat. If not kept cool, it could quickly spiral out of control. After separation of the nitroglycerin, the acids were simply dumped into the Delaware River. No one was concerned about the environment, but Lammot was looking for a way to salvage them to lower costs.
Safety was not the major concern it is today. Lammot is described as earlier carrying the first production of nitroglycerin in a bucket to the adjoining building to be made into dynamite. The danger of carrying a bucket of nitroglycerin is mind-boggling, but the du Ponts had always made a point of sharing in the risks of the workers.
This photograph from the Hagley Museum Archives is of a later building said to be architecturally identical to the N.G. House where the explosion occurred.
The following is the full account of the explosion as published in the Philadelphia Inquirer on March 31, 1884, supplied by the Hagley Museum Library. The photocopy is indistinct in parts, so I retyped it, preserving the unique style, misspellings, and punctuation. The unnamed reporter, certainly not a chemist, must had been hurriedly taking notes during the confusion and could have easily gotten some of the facts wrong. A second reporter, who misspelled “Laflin & Rand,” seems to have tacked on the last few paragraphs.
[Speaking as a retired chemist, it sounds like the fault was in the cooling system, not the recycled acid. Adding water, as described, in a desperate attempt to cool the mixture would have made the situation worse. Water reacts with sulfuric acid to generate large amounts of heat. The rule in chemistry is to add acid to water, never water to acid. But there are not enough accurate details to say conclusively how it happened.]
NITRO-GLYCERINE DEALING DEATH AND DESTRUCTION
Fatal Disaster at the Rapauno Chemical Company’s Works—A Shock Like an Earthquake—List of the Dead
A sound like an earthquake, a cloud of flying fragments in the air, and a general crash of window panes terrified everybody within a circuit of several miles round the Rapauno Nitro-Glycerine Works, at Thompson’s Point, at half past ten on Saturday morning. As far off as Chester, and on South Broad street, in this city, the explosion was heard, and at Gloucester and Woodbury it was distinctly felt. From all parts of the neighborhood people hurried towards the works, which all intuitively recognized as the scene of the disaster. On their arrival they found their worst fears verified, the manufactory was a ruin, and President Lammot Dupont, Mr. A. C. Ackerson, of St. Louis, Superintendent Walter N. Hill, Foreman George Norton, with Powder House Superintendent Henry L. Norcross, and Louis Ley, laborer, lay dead amidst the debris, most of them under the heavy masonry of the nitro glycerine building, known as the “N.G. House.”
One statement explains the catastrophe as the result of an attempt to save a large part of the nitric acid which in the process of manufacture had previously run to waste into a tank in the cellar, after the distillation of the nitro-glycerine. Just before the explosion the refuse nitric acid was in a wooden tank on the second floor of the “N.G. house,” a singularly constructed building forty feet square, with a fourteen by ten annex. The foundations were solidly built of stone, sunk two feet below the ground and rising six feet above it, the interior being closely packed with sand.
The upper portion, on account of the solid basement of stone and sand, was entirely free from any perceptible vibration. Access to the upper floor was gained by steps from the outside. Within was a large iron vat, with another inside of it. A current of cold water flowing continually around the inner one, which contained several hundred feet of coils of lead pipe, through which flowed a second current of cold water, the object being to keep down below the temperature of the mingling acids and glycerine, as they evolved heat while combining. It was the failure to do this successfully that resulted in the explosion; and one of the killed, Mr. Norcross, had said during the morning that he did not like the way the mixture was working; adding, with an expression of anxiety, that he could not keep down the heat. Mr. Norton, the chemical foreman, was also very anxious, and before leaving his home at Gibbstown that morning said to his sister, “Don’t be worried if you hear a noise at the works to-day.”
The gentlemen, however, with their assistants continued bravely at their posts as the dangerous stuff in the tanks grew warmer, doing their best to keep down the heat. They were somewhat encouraged by remembering that on a previous occasion, although the nitro-glycerine had become so hot as to throw out flames, there was no explosion.
About ten o’clock President Dupont arrived at the works. With him came Mr. Ackerson, who accompanied him as his guest, and who, it was said at the works, had been married to a niece of Mr. Dupont. The gentlemen were joined in their rounds by Superintendent Hill, and devoted about half an hour to visiting, together, several departments of the works, in which 150 men were employed. Returning to the office they had been seated but a few moments when a messenger rushed in with the startling announcement: “Something wrong at the N.G. House. You are wanted there at once.” Superintendent Hill sprang to his feet and started for the post of danger, Mr. Dupont hurrying out with him, and the unfortunate Mr. Ackerson following.
In the doomed building were Mr. Norton, the foreman, Mr. Norcross, and Mr. Lay, the watchman, running off the charges of glycerine. The heated fluid had begun to fume, and it was then that Mr. Norcross had sent off the messenger in hot haste for the superintendent. The mixing kettle had a capacity of 6000 pounds. It was supplied with glycerine from a 2600 pound tank in a corner of the same room, and with acids from tanks outside, while from another corner an engine, supplied with steam from a distance, revolved the iron blades of the agitator used in the mixing process. In the annex was another huge tank, into which the nitro-glycerine flowed through a pipe by gravity. A workman, who looked through a window when the messenger was sent for Mr. Hill, saw Mr. Norton turning a stream of cold water into the mixing tank. Apprehending danger he ran away, no doubt just as Messrs. Dupont and Hill had just entered the N.G. house, and Mr. Ackerson was mounting the stair outside, when the men from within came rushing out. Unhappily, they had lingered too long.
The next moment came the explosion, a burst of smoke and flame shot up 100 feet into the air; the fugitive workman was hurled by the terrible “swell in the air,” as he called it, twenty feet further away; Mr. Ackerson and Mr. Dupont were buried under two feet of earth, and the ruins of the building came down upon the others, with the exception of Mr. Norcross, who was hurled thirty feet from the top of the outside stairway. After the first moment of terror and confusion there was a rush from all the thirty buildings in the grounds to the fatal spot. The explosion had dug a big hole in the earth. The powder house was moved from its foundation and drawn toward the ruined building, and the glass from the windows of the other houses fell in the same direction.
The bodies were quickly found and exhumed. All of the victims were dead when taken out. The remains were not much mangled or lacerated, but ribs and limbs were found crushed and broken. One of the two bodies were partially stripped of their clothing. Mr. Ackerson was a stranger and was not recognized by any of the survivors. Mr. Jackson, the chemist, had been introduced to him that morning at the works, but failed to catch his name. All the rest were at once identified, and the six bodies were placed in hurriedly constructed cases of plain boards, where they remained all day.
Medical aid was summoned at once. Dr. Laws, of Paulsboro, was on the ground almost immediately, having hurried over from Gibbstown, only a mile away. The tug Rapauno steamed off to Chester, where Dr. Edward Harvey, leaving his carriage in the middle of the street, hastened on board, and was soon followed by Drs. Robert Millner, Clarence de Lannoy, Hanna J. Price, D. W. Jeffries, and William Bird, with whom the tug steamed back. On the way down the Rapauno hailed the tug Gersham Mott, heading for the city, and that boat soon returned to Thompson’s Point, bringing half a dozen Philadelphia physicians, who, like their brethren from Chester, found that their aid was not required, save to ascertain the condition of the bodies of the dead.
The Gibbstown people, men and women, hurried to the entrance of the works at once. Some of the latter, though told who were killed, were still doubtful about the fate of their husbands, brothers and sons, and begged hard to be admitted, but their appeals were necessarily resisted.
An inquest was held during the afternoon by Coroner Frank Green, of Paulsboro, when the workman whose prudent retreat saved his life, Professor Jackson and two laborers were questioned, and the jury rendered a verdict in accordance with the facts.
Mr. Lammot Dupont, aged fifty-three, was the second of his family killed by an explosion since their emigration from France a century ago. An obituary notice of Mr. Dupont will be found in another column.
Mr. A Ackerson, aged thirty, was bookkeeper of the Laflin & Rand Powder Company, of St. Louis, and was the right hand man of the firm and a universal favorite. He arrived at the Continental from St. Louis, shortly before midnight on Friday, asked to be called early, breakfasted in the cafe and started for Thompson’s Point, after inquiring his way thither, about half-past eight Saturday morning.
Superintendent Walter N. Hill, aged thirty-eight, lived on Euclid street, Woodbury. He leaves a widow and three children.
Mr. H. L. Norcross, thirty years of age, resided at Bridgeport, and was to be married two weeks hence.
Mr. George Norton, aged twenty-nine, who resided in Gibbstown, was also about to be married, and the wedding was fixed for next Thursday.
Mr. Lay, twenty-six years of age, was employed constantly in the nitro-glycerine house, part of his duty being to regulate the transfer of the glycerine to the mixing vat.
Colonel Edward Green, treasurer of the Lafland [sic] & Rand Company, of New York, arrived in this city yesterday for the purpose of taking charge of the body of Mr. Ackerson, who was killed at Thompson Point. Mr. Ackerson was formally connected with the Lafland & Rand Company as book-keeper and traveling salesman, and was recently in charge of the company’s office in St. Louis. The remains will be forwarded to St. Louis this morning by Mr. Green.