The Aetna Powder Works Explosion(s)

Aetna has long been considered part of Miller although it is a little separated from it. In 1881 the Miami Powder company began erection of the Aetna Powder works because it was in a fairly remote location although still close to the railroads and a source of labor. By 1888 the plant had 26 buildings and employed 45 men producing 60,000 pounds of powder a day. Powder was marketed to farmers to blow stumps, and by the onset of World War One the plant employed some 300 men. The plant flourished making gun cotton during the war. It employed some 1200 men, but at the end of the war, with the expansion of Gary and Miller, there was little justification of maintaining a plant in such close proximity to the growing population and the plant closed.
(Source: Moore, Powell A. The Calumet Region: Indiana's Last Frontier. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Bureau, 1959. Print.)

It was a dangerous place and a number of explosions occurred over the three decades it operated. There was one in 1912 that killed eight men and two years later an explosion rocked Gary, blowing out windows as far as two miles away on Broadway.

The following newspaper article was taken from the Chesterton Tribune, published in Chesterton, Porter County, Indiana, on April 12, 1888, and concerns the Aetna Powder Works:

My thanks to Steve Shook, of Moscow, ID, a former Miller resident, for contributing this article.


3,000 Pounds of Nitro-glycerin Accidentally Explodes at the Aetna Powder Works.
Three Men Blown Into Atoms and Parts of Their Bodies Found a Mile Away.

Last Friday at 10 o’clock a.m. Northern Indiana received a shock which, figuratively speaking, almost startled the inhabitants out of their boots.  This shock was caused by the premature explosion of 3,000 pounds of nitroglycerine in the mixing department of the Aetna Powder Works, one and one-quarter miles west of Miller Station, Ind. The shock was plainly heard at Fort Wayne, Ind., a distance of 120 miles, and immediately after inquiries of the cause went flying over the wires in all directions.

The explosion occurred in the mixing department of the works, a building built against a sand hill and consisting of four floors. This building is about twenty rods from the nearest building, which is the engine house, and was the most dangerous department of the works. It was run by three men, Henry Scott, John A. Gill, and H. L. Jansen. Here it was that the nitro-glycerin was mixed with pulp, the combination, after going through certain processes, becoming dynamite powder. Henry Scott was the mixer, Gill his assistant, and Jansen the trucker, who wheeled the powder to another department. Just how the explosion was caused will never be known, but the supposition is that Scott dropped a can of nitro-glycerin on the floor and it exploded.

The building was blown up and broken into kindling wood, iron pipes which ran into the building were twisted into knots, and the tanks wrenched into all sorts of shapes. The bodies of the three unfortunate men were blown to atoms, fragments of the flesh being found on the neighboring sand hills and in the tree tops.

Teams in the neighborhood ran away, their drivers thinking that Gabriel had blown his trumpet, and they began to run too. One fellow who was standing in the gangway of a building in the vicinity, was blown out a distance of twenty feet, and fell on his hands and knees in a sand hill.  As quick as thought could return to his badly shaken senses, he got up and ran. They say he got away form the explosion.

Superintendent J. W. Smith and his men at once began the work of collecting the fragments of the dead bodies., telegraphed to Chicago for coffins and to Crown Point for the Coroner. The work of collecting the remains was a horrible one. Her an arm, there a piece of leg, another place the upper lip and mustache of a man, and so on. But at last the work was completed and the remains placed in three coffins. The inquest was simply that the remains were supposed to be those of Scott, Gill and Jansen, and that 3,000 pounds of nitro-glycerin was responsible for the catastrophe.

That the loss of life was small is remarkable, considering the amount of explosive that were involved. This is due to the fact that the building was built on piles, set above ground against a sand hill and away from other buildings. Among the narrow escapes was that related by Superintendent J. W. Smith. It is his duty and custom to visit each department of the works daily, and he generally stopped in the mixing department about the hour the explosion occurred. That day he went past the building and did not stop, perhaps for the first time in six months.  The reason for this was that the company wanted a new brand of cartridges made, and Smith hurried to give the necessary instructions to the foreman of that department, when the explosion took place. Had Smith stopped at the magazine, even for five minutes, he would have went with the other three men. Another narrow escape was that of Mr. Demass and his men. Mr.  Demass is a contractor, of Chesterton, who is building a railroad track from the factory to the station at Millers. That day Mr. Demass went to Valparaiso on business, and had left his orders for his men the day before. The road runs on the hill where the magazine was, and the men were working further down. Their orders was to put in the time where they were until noon, and then finish the work on the hill in the afternoon. Had Demass been there they would undoubtedly have been within twenty feet of the explosion, and that would have meant instant annihilation.

The financial loss to the company is $5,000. The company expected explosions any time and had a building ready for such emergency, and work will be resumed in a short time. This is the second explosion within the last two years, though the first was not so disastrous. The president of the company evidently expects the worst, and prefers his cozy Chicago office to the dangers of the works, for whenever business compels him to visit Miller the works are shut down and nothing is done until he gets away to a safe distance.

Scott, one of the men killed, was from Wheeler and had been employed in the powder factory about seven years. Gill was from Boston, and Jansen from Denmark. All were single men. Scott got $60 month, and Gill and Jansen $2 a day for their perilous work. Their funeral took place on Saturday, and the remains were buried in the cemetery at Millers.