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Explosions, Espionage and Negligence in Marlborough Township
Written by Larry Roeder, Editor

            The pristine creeks that flow through Marlborough Township gave rise to many companies who located their mills there from 1730 through 1900.  Grist mills, saw

Hilltop view of the Miller powder mill, located in the valley along the

Swamp (Unami) creek.

mills, linseed oil mills and hemp mills.  They all profited from the water power of the Perkiomen and Swamp (Unami) creeks.  But the most frightening of all the businesses located along those banks was the powder mills.

            In the mid-1800s, there were ten of the profitable explosive makers located in that region, belching smoke and stench from their charcoal pits throughout the Marlborough Township valleys.  With their prosperity, the powder mills brought with them devastation at every miscue, error or accident. 

            The mill complex of James Miller, located on the Swamp Creek about 3/4 of a mile from Sumneytown, had an unenviable record of disasters.  The first was recorded on Sept. 1, 1881 in which one worker lost his life.  The wooden structure was destroyed

The damaged equipment barn at the powder mill after the explosion lev-

eled several other buildings and damaged the house to the left of the barn.

and replaced with a masonry one.  One year and a day later another explosion leveled the plant.  The structure was rebuilt only to fall prey to an explosion on March 1, 1883.

            Another blast, caused by two New Year's revelers shooting guns, destroyed the mill on Jan. 1, 1889.  A fire destroyed the mill on August 10, 1891.  The plant was rebuilt only to be leveled again three months later by another explosion.  Another explosion damaged the plant on April 19, 1893, and still another wrecked the mill on June 18, 1895.

            An item published in the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that one person was killed in the 1893 blast and that the cause of the explosion remained a mystery since the mill was not operating at the time. 

            A monumental blast occurred in 1898 that leveled four buildings of the powder

The 1898 explosion left a hole where the powder plant was that,

according to one observer, could hold forty horses. 

mill complex.  So loud, it was reportedly heard in Norristown.  At the time, the mill was reportedly supplying gunpowder for the United States effort during the Spanish-American War and was working on a large government contract.

            The Allentown Leader newspaper reported many people in the Sumneytown area thought the mill was blown up by a Spanish spy. 

            According to the article, a tall, angular-looking stranger with piercing eyes and dark beard streaked with gray, recently visited H.S. Saylor in Pottstown.  The recently ill Saylor was the U. S. Consul to Mantanza, Cuba.  The visitor told Saylor he was from Iowa and was on a special mission.  After exchanging a few words with the consular, the stranger turned to Mrs. Saylor and said "you will

The explosion on April 13, 1898 leveled trees in all directions

around the powder mill.  The blast of 1,200 kegs of powder could

be heard as far away as Norristown.

please retire as I have private business to attend to with the consul."

            Mrs. Saylor refused to leave the room and the stranger reached into his pocket as though he was going to get something to show the consul.  Mr. Saylor advised him that he was not to be bothered with papers and told the stranger to visit his law partner, Jacob Gotwalts.

            The stranger said "Buenas noches" (good night) and Saylor replied "Adios" (farewell).

            A few days after that, a stranger fitting the same description was seen in Green Lane and at 1 a.m., Wednesday, April 13, 1898, Miller's powder mill was destroyed by an explosion.  The blast of 1,200 kegs of powder (equal to about eight tons) leveled the polishing mill, dry house, packing house and a nearby linseed oil mill.

            Because of the nature of the business, the buildings were not built to be very sturdy.

            According to a report in the Allentown Democrat newspaper, one observer noted that where the powder plant was, is now a hole in the ground big enough to hold forty horses.

            It was also reported that windows were broken and doors were ripped from their hinges for miles around the explosion.  Were it not for the fact that the mill was located at the bottom of a hill, the damage would have been worse. 

            According to the Allentown Democrat, every window in the Sumneytown Lutheran Church (Friedens) was broken and the Bible and hymnal on the pulpit were thrown to the floor.  At the Sumneytown schoolhouse, 60 window panes were broken.

            The final devastating blow struck the powder mill on Thursday Dec. 7, 1899.  Three workers lost their lives and another was seriously injured in one of the most devastating industrial accidents that ever occurred in our Valley.

            Some historical accounts list the DuPont Company as the owner of the powder mill at the time.  Though DuPont had begun to take over many of the small mills in the area, newspaper accounts clearly show that James Miller was the proprietor when the latest disaster struck, and it was he who was the subject of the inquest and investigation by the Montgomery County Coroner. 

            It was believed that one or two of the workers were using iron hammers or chisels in their work that day.  Miller claimed that employees William Bahr and John Schwager had been warned on several occasions to use only wooden hammers because of the danger of a spark igniting the powder.  Witnesses and other employees testified in support of Miller's claim.  The 20 minutes of the horror in Sumneytown that day is summarized as follows:

            1:00 p.m. - Plant Foreman William Bahr, employees Albert Schueck, John Schwager Jr., and William Schaeffer are all in the engine room preparing for their afternoon work.

            1:05 p.m. - Schueck left the engine room to do some work in the packing plant. 

            1:15 p.m. - Bahr and Schwager left the engine room and went to work in the glaze house, about 300 feet away.  Schaeffer had work to perform in the engine room and stayed there.

            1:19 p.m. - Henry Nace, the company's wheelwright, was in the grinding mill.  He was looking out the window just before the explosion occurred, and saw flames shooting from between the boards of the glaze house.

            1:20 p.m. - The initial explosion occurred in the glaze house.  Bahr and Schwager were killed instantly.  Seconds later, debris and sparks ignited a second explosion in the packing plant.  Employee William Houch, who was working in the press house, rushed from the building at the sound of the first explosion.  He was outside and was thrown to the ground by the second explosion. 

            1:25 p.m. - The plant's night engineer, Henry Goettel, rushed to the scene and found  Schueck lying a few feet from the foundation of the packing plant.  Schueck's clothes were aflame and other employees were pouring water on him.  Bahr and Schwager were found within 20 feet of the glazing building.  Only the foundation of that building remained.

            The body of Schwager showed indications that his head and one arm were inside of a barrel, perhaps cleaning the powder keg.  Witnesses and other employees were steadfast in their support of James Miller's contention that he forbade the use of any iron tools, and that all were instructed time after time to use wooden hammers at their work. 

            The conclusion drawn from the investigation exonerated Miller of any wrongdoing and placed the cause of the explosion on one of the workers.





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