Historic Moment: A look back at Split Rock explosion
Jul 16, 2018 Jason Gabak Eagle Observer, News, News, Skaneateles Press
By Jorge and Beth Batlle Village and Town Historians
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July 2, 1918, an explosion at the Split Rock munitions plant not only shook the City of Syracuse, but also sent shock waves as far away as the Village of Skaneateles. Of the approximately 600 men working the 3 to 11pm shift, 50 men were killed in the blast. Two, Vernon Dillon and James King were from Skaneateles.
This tri-nitro-toluene (TNT) plant was one of 18 in the country. It was started in 1915 by the Semet-Solvay Company. It was located on 1,000 isolated acres in an old and abandoned quarry off the end of Onondaga Road, just west of the City, in an area now called Taunton. Approximately 25% of the nation’s explosives were produced here and sent to Belgium and France for the World War I effort. The plant employed 3,000 people by 1918. John Hazard of Skaneateles was the Vice President of the company.
James King and Vernon Dillon probably boarded the Auburn-Syracuse trolley in the Village earlier that afternoon and rode the line into work. Arriving at the plant, they passed through a turnstile, and both, as required left their matches and cigarettes behind, and headed for their work stations.
Vernon Dillon, age 23, was one of the 300 patrolman, who day and night guarded the 14 miles of fence that enclosed the facility. Dillon, a graduate of Skaneateles High School and Manhattan College in New York City, had worked for the plant for two years. As a patrolman, he carried a .38 caliber revolver, and was trained in the special techniques of fighting munitions fires.
When the fire whistle blew that night, he was one of the firefighters who responded. A fire had started from an overheated gear in one of the grinding machines. At first, the firefighters were able to keep the flames under control, until the hoses went limp due to a failure of the water system. A wind blowing up from the south fanned the flames until they were dangerously close to the 60 foot tower on TNT Building #1. The men quickly realized that they had to get as far away as possible.
But, before everyone could flee to safety, there was a blinding light, a deafening roar, and a fiery ball shot up into the air, and fell in a shower of sparks. Men were tossed up into the air, clothes torn from their bodies, (and their skin was yellow from the picric acid used in the manufacture). Breathing became difficult because of the super heated air and noxious gasses released into the air.
Vernon’s body was badly burned by the flames. He was identified in the morgue by family members by a missing tooth and other markings. The records show that he died of a crushed skull. He was laid to rest in St. Mary’s Cemetery in Skaneateles.
James King had only been working at the plant 4 weeks. He was waiting to be called up in the Draft, for the country was fighting in World War I. The body of the 26 year old was among the 15 workers who were so severely burned that relatives were unable to identify them. Other men from Skaneateles that survived in spite of their injuries were Charles Wood, John Newman and Leslie Hoyt.
There were many acts of heroism that night. For example – a little over a ton of material had exploded. while there was another 400 tons in storage in the western section. If the fire had spread there, experts say, the explosion would have destroyed the entire City of Syracuse. As it was, 10 buildings were destroyed, with property losses amounting to $1,000,000 (15.8 million in today’s dollar)
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Dillon, Vernon [MC???? RIP]
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