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This Day in Labor History: October 4, 1918

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On October 4, 1918, the T.A. Gillespie Shell Loading Plant near Sayreville, New Jersey exploded, killing approximately 100 workers making ammunition for the nation’s war effort during World War I. This was another in a series of disasters from poor workplace conditions that defined American work life during these years, especially in dangerous trades. Too often, munitions trades were not seen as plants needing additional safety. Rather, given that workers died all the time during these years, there simply was not serious safety precautions. This was hardly the first time a big munitions plant blew up either. During the Civil War, the Washington Arsenal exploded and killed 20 workers producing munitions for the Union, but while this was a long time earlier, real safety improvements had barely taken place in most American factories in the meantime. Meanwhile, whether in coal mines or hard rock mines or apparel shops or wherever else, workers died on a daily basis and sometimes in large numbers that attracted national attention.

The plant was rapidly built at the direction of the federal government, the largest of the munitions plants opened during the war. But the rush to build and supply the front with arms, the attention paid to detail was sadly lacking. The explosion was accidental of course, but with safety conditions minimal, even in a plant dedicated to making munitions, the initial explosion set off other blasts. In fact, the fire and munitions explosions continued for a full three days, destroying much of the neighborhood around the plant. This was a huge plant covering a large area. Debris was found across a 1.2 mile radius from these series of catastrophic explosions. The worst explosions came from rail cars that were loaded with munitions. These were so strong that they broke some windows as far as way as Manhattan, a full 25 miles away. A 1919 report estimated that enough ammunition was destroyed to supply the American needs on the western front of World War I for a full six months. There were real worried in the aftermath of the explosion that the explosion would collapse East River bridges or subway tunnels.

It’s not clear exactly how many workers died. Employment records were destroyed in the explosion. Many victims were eviscerated beyond recognition. Between 14 and 18 dead workers were buried in a nearby mass grave. With so many nearby homes damaged, homelessness rates spiked. So did rates from the worldwide influenza epidemic ravaging the United States that fall. Death rates in the area were especially high. The government paid out to the survivors and families, but this was inconsistent and certainly did not make up for the tragedy. Almost immediately, for as disastrous as this was, the overall impact in public memory disappeared, largely because the war ended a month later and the nation worked as hard as possible to forget all about it.

Safety conditions for workers handling munitions would remain tremendously dangerous, as the African-American soldiers who died in the Port Chicago Explosion during World War II could attest.

To my knowledge, this is a severely understudied moment and I did not find any ready scholarship that explored its impact in any meaningful way, so this post is a bit shorter than most others in this series, which as it continues and covers increasingly lesser known events, is something that can perhaps be occasionally expected.

This is the 283rd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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