Horseshoe and wheel hub from
1891 nitroglycerin explosion
Sam Bigley left his Mount Morris home in the early morning of July 16, 1891, to pick up 100 quarts of nitroglycerin in Washington, Pa. Along with him in the platform spring wagon, pulled by two horses, were his wife, their 9-year-old daughter and her 11-year-old friend. Their journey would take them through Waynesburg and on to Washington at the end of the day.
At the height of the oil and gas boom in Pennsylvania, Sam Bigley had become proficient in the industry’s most dangerous skill: well shooting.
Highly explosive nitroglycerin was loaded into metal cylinders and sent down deep shafts to fracture sluggish wells and make the oil flow. The Bigleys spent the night in a hotel on Main Street; the next morning, Sam and his wife took the wagon to the farm of William Barre in South Strabane Township to pick up the nitroglycerin. He was only able to buy 20 quarts of nitro. They rode back to Washington; at the corner of South College and East Maiden Street, his wife stepped down from the wagon and headed back to the hotel to retrieve her daughter and her friend. She intended to take them to the Waynesburg & Washington Railroad station in time to catch the 9:20 a.m. train to Waynesburg.
Puffing a cigar, Sam Bigley turned east on Maiden Street, heading back to Mount Morris alone, with three cans containing the 20 quarts of nitroglycerin snuggled into a bed of straw, secured by ropes and covered with oil cloth and a beaver blanket.
The explosion occurred at 8:35 a.m. at what is now 560 E. Maiden St. First came a tall swirling column of yellow dust followed by a deafening report and a mist of flying splinters. Two houses were destroyed; a child seated in a rocking chair on the porch of one of them was found in the side yard with only cuts and bruises. Twenty-eight other houses were damaged but few injuries reported. The explosion left a crater in the hard limestone road four feet deep and six feet across. The disemboweled carcasses of the horses lay one hundred feet away. The force of the explosion embedded a horseshoe from one of the animals in the siding of a house across the street and fifty yards distant. A neighbor, Dr. Homer C. Clark, removed it as a keepsake and years later presented it to the Washington County Historical Society along with a piece of the wheel hub from the wagon. When the shock of the blast was felt nearby, witnesses reported hearing Mrs. Bigley exclaim, “My God, my husband has been killed.”
As for Samuel Bigley, it would take hours for his remains to be gathered in a peck basket and brought to the coroner. Coroner T.R.H. Johnson impaneled a jury of six men who viewed the destruction, heard testimony from witnesses and experts and viewed the remains. They found no evidence of negligence on the part of any person that in any way contributed to Bigley’s death. John Fair, his friend and fellow well shooter, said it was likely that ashes from Bigley’s cigar had ignited the straw and caused the explosion.
Source: “Washington County Murder & Mayhem,” by A. Parker Burroughs
Alice Burroughs is a volunteer for the Washington County Historical Society and a member of the antiquities committee.