Home / General / This Day in Labor History: April 10, 1917

This Day in Labor History: April 10, 1917

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On April 10, 1917, four days after the U.S. declared war on Germany, the Eddystone Ammunition Works in Eddystone, Pennsylvania, outside of Chester, exploded, killing 139 workers, mostly women and children. This is yet another example of the horrors of the American workplace in this era. It is also a great example of how employers would use the immigrant status of their workers to blame them for their own deaths.

The Eddystone Arsenal was built in 1916 and quickly received contracts to produce weapons for the Allies. Even though the U.S. was not yet in the war, it seemed like a good business deal and was. In fact, at the moment of the explosion, it was producing ammunition for the Russian Army. As was so common in these years, the way to maximize your profits was to have the lowest wages possible, which meant hiring women and young girls. In fact, ammunition work had long been something defined as women’s work and going back to the Civil War, massive workplace deaths from these unstable plants exploding had disproportionately impacted women. The company actually explicitly targeted “girls” in its advertisements for workers. A lot of them were immigrants.

There were about 380 workers in the Eddystone plant by April 1917 and that number was growing with the orders as the nation entered World War I.

On March 10, 1917, around 10 AM, the F building in the plant blew up. 139 workers died. Given that the nation had just declared war on Germany, its propagandists immediately had a suspect–the entire German people. The media, already hot on hate, claimed it was some German saboteur and given the numbers of Germans and German-Americans in Pennsylvania, anyone could be a suspect. This was hardly the first time that the American media had used an explosion of dubious provenance to blame some other country and gin up support for war. After all, this was less than twenty years after the USS Maine blew up in Havana’s harbor and the media used it to force war with Spain as opposed to investigating the real cause, which was the engine blowing up. But it was a completely ridiculous claim based in mass hysteria.

Meanwhile, there were 139 dead workers and I am not sure how many injured, but at least 100. Some of the bodies were found in the nearby Delaware River. Whether the blast blew them there or they were fleeing the fire and died there remains unknown. The rescue workers had it real dangerous too because smaller explosions kept happening. One rescue worker had his leg blown off.

No one ever really figured out exactly what happened, but several of our worst workplace death incidents have resulted from handling ammunition and what goes into it, so it’s not hard to extrapolate that something wasn’t stored properly, heat rose, something went off. Or there were sparks from wires setting off the explosion. But for years, no one wanted to admit that it might have been caused by the company. From the very first day of the explosion, the company denied all responsibility and blamed outside saboteurs. So years later, a new theory came about—Bolsheviks! OK, maybe it wasn’t the Germans, but we all know about those Russians and their commie ways. They must have done it! That’s even more absurd. But since the workers were mostly immigrants, why not blame them? But the idea that immigrants were really saboteurs did help influence the nation to restrict immigration and thus the flow of labor into the country in 1924.

The remains of 55 workers never could be identified. They are in a mass grave.

This is the 512th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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