Ghosts of Shenks Ferry
Along the banks of the Susquehanna in Conestoga Township is Shenks Ferry. This area is filled with tales of the supernatural. Local legend talks of a “white angel” that haunts the tunnel entering the wildflower preserve (learn more about The ‘White Angel’ of Shenks Ferry’s Haunted Tunnel here). But perhaps the most macabre tale is the tragic true tale of the 1906 dynamite factory explosion that claimed the lives of 11 men.
Inside of Shenks Ferry, about 400 yards south of the Enola Low-Grade and a mile east of Susquehanna River, is Bausman’s Hollow. It was in this place that once housed the dynamite factory of the C. R McAfee Powder & Oil Co.
For two years, dynamite had been manufactured, packed, and shipped from this isolated spot without a severe accident. In early 1906 had you looked down from the hills surround Bausman’s Hollow, you would have seen several buildings, including a storage house, a boiler house, and the “punch house.” The punch house is where the dynamite was placed in paper tubes and pressed down with a wooden stamper, then covered with paraffin, and put in 50-pound wooden cases.
Some 250 yards from this was another building where several girls made the paper tubes. Some distance in another direction was the box house where crates were built. Still farther along was an old dwelling which Albert Rapp, superintendent of the operation, used as an office.
Separated from all the other buildings was a small structure where the nitroglycerin was made, packed in rubber tubes and sent to the mixing house where it was combined with the other dynamite ingredients, and then taken to the punch house.
All told some 40 people—men and women—were employed here. Most were from the nearby village of Colemanville. A few came from York County, who commuted to work day by rowing across the river.
You can still find the spot, but there’s not much to see. Only the foundation of a building remains. A small sign commemorates the location. Details on finding it are located below.
Primed for Disaster
Around 12:30 pm, several men had gone back to work in the punch house. Inside were 2,500 pounds of dynamite. Close by was a boxcar filled with cased dynamite ready to roll out to the Columbia and Port Deposit Railroad. In the storehouse was another two carloads of dynamite ready to be shipped. Elsewhere in the plant was some 7,000 pounds of glycerine.
The Unthinkable Happens
Suddenly at exactly 12:42 pm on June 9, 1906, there was a roar, a flash of yellow light, and the punch house simply disintegrated, obliterating the 11 men inside and injuring another nine. Moments later, the nitro-plant exploded. A watch stopped at 12:42, found the next day, set the exact moment of the disaster. The Lancaster New Era called it “the most horrible accident that has ever occurred in Lancaster County.”
However, the surviving workers didn’t have time to grieve. Thousands of pounds of explosives sat nearby. Shellshocked men picked themselves up and began pushing the boxcar loaded with dynamite away from the roaring flames. Boards had been torn off the sides of the car, and cases ripped open by the force of the blast. Luckily against all the odds, these explosives had not detonated. Neither did the two carloads in the storehouse nor did the 7,000 pounds of glycerine.
One official said, “There were sufficient explosives in the hollow to set a whole state in an uproar.” What did explode was heard for miles. The ground trembled as if it was an earthquake.
Half a mile away, a man’s barn was thrown out of plumb and several sashes of windows torn from his house. In a home, closer to the scene, there was not a whole pane of glass nor an unbroken dish; the homeowner was thrown to the floor. In Colemanville, windows rattled, and doors swung open. One resident said that when the explosion came to his whole house, inside was illuminated by a yellow color, which lasted almost a minute.
Pieces of timbers were sent flying in all directions. All the trees nearby were stripped of their leaves, many losing branches as well. Several trees as large as a man’s body were snapped in half and turned a rusty color. The explosion broke windows 1.5 miles away and could be heard as far away as 15 miles.
Within a few days, a large force of Italians from the Enola Low-Grade project was sent to search for the bodies of the 11 missing men. It was a gruesome search. One worker said that it reminded him of gathering chestnuts as there were little bits of flesh and bone—some as small as a silver dollar and others as large as a dollar bill. One man found a white, fleshless backbone and a couple of ribs in a tree 250 yards away.
Another man was found 300 yards from the site of the explosion near the low-grade railroad line lying in the grass. The ground showed that the body had come with great force beating down the grass: The was only one arm, a portion of the trunk, and half of the neck and face. The body was identified as Frederick Rice by his brother, who recognized him by a scar on the wrist.
All told, just three dynamite cases were filled with bits and scraps of the 11 missing men.
Dead Men Tell No Tales
The men and boys pictured above formed the more significant part of the labor force at the dynamite plant in Bausman’s Hollow. Front Row: Man wearing a cap, Henry Boatman (hurt); man to the right of him with a hatchet, Martin Rinser (hurt, lost two sons).
Second Row (left to right): Joseph Rineer (killed), William Funk Jr. (killed), W. Collins Parker (killed), (next unidentified), Benjamin Rinser (killed), (next unknown), Phares Shoff (killed), John Gephart (hurt), Charles Cramer (hurt).
Third Row (second from left): John Boatman (killed); the man with the mustache, beside the dog, Jacob Shoff (hurt); the man in derby, superintendent Albert Rapp. Others unidentified, mostly from York County.
Those who died included:
- Phares Shoff of Colemanville, aged 18 years.
- Benjamin Rineer of Colemanville, aged 23 years.
- Joseph Rineer of Colemanville, aged 19 years.
- William Funk of Colemanville, aged 18 years.
- W. Collins Parker of York Furnace, aged 16 years.
- Fred Rice, residing near Colemanville, aged 25 years.
- John Boatman of Pequea, aged 17 years.
- J. Curtis Myers of York, aged 38 years.
- Ernest Turner, Bullis Mills, Wayne County, aged 21 years.
- George Hathaway of Emporium, Pa. aged 19 years.
- Edward Holmes of Buffalo, N.Y., aged 27 years.
On Tuesday, June 12, there was a funeral at Colemanville United Methodist Church. Fred Rice—or what was found of him—was buried in one casket. The remains of the other 10 men were interred in another single grave.
If you find your way to the cemetery today, you’ll see in a prominent place a granite block topped with the inscription, “Our Boys.” It is also the starting point of the Bausman Hollow Adventure. On it are the names of the dead men, and below is carved: “In memory of those who met death in the explosion of dynamite June 9, 1906.”
Cause of the Explosion
An inquest was created to investigate the explosion. George Gray testified that he was at the box house, where he was an engineer. He could see into the punch house, and he saw J. Curtis Myers place one box of dynamite on top of another. As he did so, Gray saw a spark come out as the two boxes touched each other.
Another man testified that some of the men who handled dynamite often spoke in a bragging way to timid friends as to what they could do with the dangerous stuff without causing it to explode.
Perhaps the most likely cause of the accident was this. At the time, it was common to build a new dynamite factory ever one to two years as the explosive dust settles between floorboards and cracks in the walls making the building prone for disaster. Allegedly the workers had requested a new building as it had been over two years. It is unknown if the request was ignored or just had not yet been acted upon.
The inquest ultimately ruled that the 11 men “came to death by accidental discharge of dynamite.” Likely no one will ever really know what caused the tragedy.
Where to find it
If you would like to visit the site of the dynamite factory explosion head to Shenks Ferry Wildflower Preserve. Follow the trail along Grubb’s Run. The path is highlighted in yellow below. Immediately after crossing through the second powerline cut area, cross the stream. Once you cross the stream, it’s about .2 miles to a sign marking the factory site.
Two hundred feet after the foundation, a sign that marks the location and commemorates the tragic event will be visible. If you would rather use GPS, here are the coordinates: 39.9045, -76.3585.
Keep an eye out for no trespassing and private property signs. If you get to them, you have gone too far.
Before You Go
For the most up-to-date information about parking and accessing Shenks Ferry Wildflower Preserve, be sure to visit their website by clicking here.
Hunting is prohibited on the rail trail where the bulk of this adventure takes place, but much of the surrounding area, including Shenks Ferry, allows it. Consider wearing orange during those times. Here’s a link to Pennsylvania hunting seasons. Deer and turkey are the big two.