Nitroglycerin Explosion of 1927

It was a seemingly normal Thursday morning on June 9, 1927 in the Lick Hill village just outside of the city of Butler, Pennsylvania. The relative calm of the summer morning was suddenly shattered, however, when a truck carrying nitroglycerin destined for oil well drilling operations exploded while the truck was leaving the main highway and entering a side road; witnesses later reported they saw the truck’s tire drop into a large pothole. The explosion killed two men, Frank H. Greer and Richard Coxsan, both of Rouseville and left at least twenty others injured. According to a Butler Eagle report, it was “the worst scene of destruction ever seen in Butler County.”

The truck was driven by workers of the Bowers Torpedo Company, who were delivering the nitroglycerin to one of their sister companies in the Producers Torpedo Company. Nitroglycerin is a highly volatile explosive liquid that was used for efficiency in oil well drilling during the early 1900s. The process used a “torpedo," invented in 1865 by Colonel E.A.L. Roberts, in order to blow rocks and debris out of the way of the drill. Explosions during the transport of nitroglycerin were very common - so common, in fact, that many other states had already banned the transportation of the substance.

The explosion left a hole at least eight feet deep and fourteen feet wide in the road and knocked all nearby power lines down. The blast severely damaged 15-20 homes in the area and left nearly twenty people injured. The majority of the people injured in the incident were people who lived in the homes that were destroyed by the blast. The home nearest the blast, the Edward Rettig residence, was completely flattened in the explosion.The blast was so massive that people two miles away in the city of Butler heard and felt it.

Village physicians in Lick Hill, quickly overwhelmed by the number of injuries and with no way to call for backup due to the damaged phone systems, were relieved when doctors from Butler who felt the blast came to assist them. A Red Cross Relief Fund was set up and accumulated over $1,400 dollars in donations for the affected families. The workers even asked for donations from all of the sightseers drawn by the blast. Along with personal donations, the Harris Theater in Butler secured 8 separate Vaudeville acts for a benefit show where all of the money raised would be donated to the fund. The event raised nearly $800 and the owner of the Theater even donated $100.

Immediately after the explosion, the call for more restrictions on nitro transportation was set to get answered when city council had a meeting on Monday, June 13. The pre-existing ordinance in place was a ban on transportation through the city with a penalty of $500. The new ordinance required all transport vehicles carrying nitroglycerin to submit to a thorough inspection before entering the city, they had to follow a police escort, and they were required to have clear markings on their trucks; otherwise they would have to pay a $1,000 fine.

Tragedy can strike anywhere, and on that particular Thursday morning, Butler County felt the force of the destruction. The explosion destroyed the livelihood of the two workers and the nearby families. The village of Lick Hill was left partially flattened and many people were left homeless following this horrific accident.

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