The Arsenal Hill Explosion

This episode originally aired April 25, 2008.

This episode’s audio file may be found at http://www.utahhumanities.org/BeehiveArchive.htm

© 2008 Utah Humanities Council

 

The Script:

 

One hundred and thirty-two years ago, as Utahns were converging on Salt Lake City eager to attend the LDS Church’s general conference, a powerful blast rocked the northern part OF the city, shattering windows, demolishing buildings, and sending people scurrying for cover.  Some city residents, angered by the persistent presence of federal troops in Utah, thought the explosion was the work of commanders at Fort Douglas, who, they surmised, had issued an order to bombard the city and exterminate the Mormons.

 

Only when things had finally quieted down and crowds began fanning out to investigate the blast was the true source of the destruction discovered.  Climbing Arsenal (now Capitol) Hill in search of an explanation for the explosion, curious onlookers found that the powder magazines that once crowned the hill had detonated leaving only a few craters.  Observers also witnessed something far more grisly.  Strewn about the hill were scraps of clothing and human remains, some up to a half-mile from the site of the blast.  According to historical sources, the deaths of four people were blamed on the explosion.  The bodies of two teenage boys, Charles Richardson and Frank Hill, were never found.  Three-year-old Joseph Raddon was cut down when a rock ripped through his chest.  And a pregnant woman named Mary Jane Van Natta was felled by a flying boulder.  Other stories of the Arsenal Hill incident included hair-raising accounts of rocks hurtling through houses, sometimes smashing into just-vacated rooms and tables.

 

An investigation of the tragedy concluded that the explosion was caused by a burning wad from a firearm, perhaps fired by victim Charles Richardson, who had taken a gun with him to the hill that day.  According to a troop of boys who had been playing baseball near the magazine, a small cluster of young men had been hanging around the magazines shooting at flocks of geese in the area. 

 

In the end, close to 500 tons of rock and other debris had rained down on Salt Lake as a result of the explosion.  Leaders of the LDS Church still held conference, though nearly a thousand panes of glass on the north face of the Tabernacle had shattered, forcing them to have the holes covered with cloth.  According to historian Melvin Bashore, the destruction was so widespread that a Civil War veteran exclaimed that Salt Lake looked worse that the city of Fredericksburg, Virginia, after several days of artillery bombardment.

 

The Rest of the Story:

 

According to historian Linda Sillitoe, a representative of the DuPont Corporation, which owned one of the powder magazines on Arsenal Hill, had complained long before the tragic explosion occurred about people engaging in target practice on the hill.  Apparently, though, public officials didn’t take his warnings seriously.  Sillitoe also points out in her history of Salt Lake County that the explosion garnered substantial media attention in the United States and Britain and may have led other cities to evaluate the placement and security of their own powder storage units. 

 

Of course the explosion’s greatest impact was felt by the people of Salt Lake.  According to a story on page 8 of the April 12, 1876, edition of the Deseret News, the Arsenal Hill tragedy was the main topic of conversation for days following the blast.  “Years in the future,” the story read, “the time of [the blast] will be referred to as an era, whence and with which the happenings of other events will be calculated and compared.”

 

Sources:

 

See news reports about the Arsenal Hill explosion in the April 6 and April 7, 1876, editions of the Salt Lake Tribune, as well as the April 12, 1876, edition of the Deseret News.  Also see Melvin L Bashore, “The Arsenal Hill Explosion,” Utah Historical Quarterly 52 (Summer 1984): 246-255; and Linda Sillitoe, A History of Salt Lake County (Salt Lake City: Utah State Historical Society and Salt Lake County Commission, 1996), 87-90.

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