The Twelve Deadly Aetna Powder Works Explosions

This page grew out of a project to update the existing inventories of burials in Bethel Lutheran/Miller Cemetery. Long was known that there are many "unknowns" buried in the cemetery in unmarked graves, victims of explosions at the Aetna Powder plant that operated from 1881 until 1919 in what is now Aetna. Little was known about the explosions. In fact, a misleading sign in the cemetery honors the dead "In Memory of Aetna Powder Plant Explosion 1917." There was no explosion in 1917, but there was a half-million dollar fire that year. There was a huge explosion on November 23, 1914 but The Lake County Times reported only widespread damage, no one killed. An article in the Times the next day, titled "Vagaries of an Explosion," described how workmen took cover before the blast and how the property damage was indiscriminate. That interesting article can be read by clicking here. I expect that a goodly number of safety procedures were put in place after the explosion two years earlier.

There were many more explosions and fires over the years that the plant operated, but I've found only these twelve that were deadly. Twelve of the twenty-eight killed are buried in Miller cemetery, evidenced by either their death certificates or articles in the papers.

The following listing of men who died in the plant have Find-a-Grave memorials, some of them made by me, some by others. There is a Find-a-Grave "virtual cemetery" for the twenty-eight which can be visited by clicking here.Those listings are alphabetical with more or less information presented here.

| Warning: the newspaper articles often have graphic, gruesome details of what happened to the men. |

April 6, 1888

The first explosion that I've been able to discover. An article the next day in the Indianapolis News, datelined Valparaiso, says that there was an explosion two years before, but I've not been able to discover that in the press. It would seem unlikely a plant making nitroglycerin since 1881 would see it's first explosion only after seven years. The article in the News says that this explosion was heard all through northern and central Lake and Porter Counties, and a "dispatch for Fort Wayne 118 miles away, says that it was perceptible there." There was little left of Henry Scott, the only remains identifiable being his upper lip. Remains of all three men were buried in Miller Cemetery without markers.

Open Chicago Tribune article in a new window- then click on image to make it full size.

A transcription of the article that appeared on April 12th in the Chesterton Tribune can be found at the obituary of Henry Scott.

December 16, 1890

This explosion was also reported in papers around the country, but usually just small notes. Explosions were common in the decades leading up to and including the 20th century as natural gas was being used for a number of things, blasting was being done around the country to cut railroad tunnels, and mining operations. Dealers and users had to be careful.

Open article in a new window- then click on image to make it full size.

September 12, 1891

There was little information on this explosion in the papers, but it was reported in Chicago Inter Ocean and the Chesterton Tribune about a month later.

Open article in a new window.

May 22, 1899

  • Charles Morris, 27, single. Incinerated. Residence and relations unknown.No burial information.
    Find-a-Grave Memorial
  • Samuel Errick, 24, married. Incinerated. Residence unknown. No burial information.
    Find-a-Grave Memorial
  • Frank Ebler, 19, single. Incinerated. Residence unknown. Parents live in Chicago. No burial information. Find-a-Grave Memorial

This is one of the most curious of stories in that several days after the explosion, which was reported widely around the country, Ralph Fay, the Secretary of the company, denied that anyone was killed and that it was an explosion of "contractor's powder," not nitroglycerin. The problem is that Fay may have been correcting reports on earlier explosions in which no one was killed. There was an explosion on February 21, and another on March 24 in which three men were badly injured, one being the Superintendent of the mill, Edward Harrington who was blinded.

Until further records can be brought to light, I am going with the newspaper reports and the men are memorialized as having been killed in this explosion.

Open article in a new window.

October 10, 1899

  • John Gallacher. Death certificate has no age. It states burial in "Aetna, Ind." can only mean Miller Cemetery. Inquest to determine his name.
    Find-a-Grave Memorial
  • John Edgar Hupman. 18. Reported incorrectly in the papers as John Hoffman. Body returned to hometown of Xenia, Ohio
    Find-a-Grave Memorial has his obituary as published in the Xenia newspaper.
  • Michael Joyce.Little information as to his age and no death certificate. His name was established at the inquest but reported in the papers as "John" Joyce. Likely buried in Miller Cemetery.
    Find-a-Grave Memorial
  • William Seberger. 26 year old son of the postmaster of Otis, Indiana in LaPorte County.
    Find-a-Grave Memorial has obituary as published in the LaPorte Daily Herald.

First reports of an explosion appear in the Racine (Wisconsin) Journal Times. Little is known about the explosion at that time and over the next week various papers sort out the details. While reports varied between four and six men who were blown to bits, the Forest Republican (Tionesta, PA) named four dead on October 18th: John Gallacher, John Hoffman, John Joyce, and William Seeberger, misspelling three of the four. Only a part of Joyce’s body were found per the inquest held by the coroner.

Felt sixty miles away in Benton Harbor, Michigan, the local paper provided one of the most complete descriptions of the explosion with the headline "WAS NOT AN EARTHQUAKE". That article available below.

All four inquests were retrieved from the microfilm at the Lake County Clerks office.Click here for an example: the inquest for Michael Joyce. All four inquests are very similar, giving dispositions of the men who had seen the victims last, when, and where.

Open article from the Benton Harbor, Michigan Weekly Palladium in a new window.

November 3, 1899

  • Rudolph Christiansen. 40. Single from Denmark. no known family and no indication on the death certificate of where he was buried.
    Find-a-Grave Memorial
  • August Lunow. 36. Married with a family in Germany. Lived in Otis, Indiana. Name per coroner's inquest.
    Find-a-Grave Memorial

Another explosion reported widely around the country, from New York City to Los Angles.Most of the reports were abbreviated but the newspaper article from the Chariton Courier in Keytesville, Missouri is about as complete as any of them. Other accounts reported that the blast was heard in Valparaiso some 30 miles distant. it was about 1,000 pounds of nitroglycerin destroying the mix-house and the two men working there. Both men were identified by coroner's inquest.

Open Chariton Courier article in a new window.

October 1, 1902

  • Charles Helman, 26, died of injuries sustained in the explosion. He was on his way to a hospital in Chicago No further information.
    Find-a-Grave Memorial
  • Henry Schwerdtfeger died the next day in a hospital in Chicago. Again no further information.
    Find-a-Grave Memorial

Very little in the papers on the nature of this explosion except for the report in the Fort Wayne Indiana Sentinel which reported that both men suffered fatal burns. All the newspapers butchered the spellings of the men's names, especially Schwerdtfeger.

Open article from the Fort Wayne Evening Sentinel in a new window.

November 25, 1903

This was another terrific blast that destroyed the tank mill, a two story building, and left an immense hole in the ground where it stood. Almost nothing was left of Hoenscher. Initially it was reported that five men were killed, but subsequent reports only named Hoenscher and two men fatally injured, Charles L. Potter and A. Fischer. "Fatally injured" means they were not expected to survive, but I've not found additional reports that they did succumb.

Hoenscher is the only victim of an explosion who has a stone in Miller Cemetery. It was placed there with the inscription "To the Memory of August Hoenscher by Hobart Lodge 458, K.of P." which is the Knights of Pythias. It was reported in the Indianapolis Journal on November 26th that the inquest identified his remains by a Knights of Pythias watch charm which he was known to wear. Curiously, the stone is rather new.

Open the November 26th article in the Indianapolis Journal in a new window.

October 2, 1905

  • William Grimmer, 26. A married resident of Miller's Station born in Germany. Wife Minnie remarried in 1908. Incinerated.
    Buried in Crown Hill in Hobart with headstone.
    Find-a-Grave Memorial
  • Louis Nicholson, 29. Born in Miller. Married. Wife Leoti, widow, living on Lake Street in Miller in 1910 with two daughters.
    Buried in Miller Cemetery per death certificate. Unmarked grave.
    More information on him at his Find-a-Grave Memorial.

Another widely reported around the country explosion, but with little detail in the news reports other than the men were incinerated. The Indianapolis News reported that the explosion occurred in a packing-house shortly after the men entered. It also reported that "No less than thirty-five people have been killed since it (the plant) was founded a few years ago." It was actually 24 years that the plant opened, and I've found little evidence of thirty-five deaths. To 1905 I've found twenty-one fatalities including the two men who were "fatally injured" in 1903.

Open Chicago Inter Ocean article in a new window.

April 2, 1907

  • John Reiss, 35. Single man living in one of the boarding houses on the plant property.
    Buried in Miller Cemetery per his death certificate.
    Find-a-Grave Memorial

The headline in the Hammond Times on the front page read BLOWN TO BITS BY EXPLOSION. The explosion occurred while Reiss was drawing off a large quantity of the "oil", nitroglycerin, incinerating Reiss, obliterating the shed leaving only a great hole in the ground. The blast was felt for miles around, especially in Gary, the new mill town that had been founded the year before. Initial reports were that anywhere from five to twenty-five men were killed, but Reiss was in fact the only fatality and there were no other injuries.

Open Hammond Times article in a new window.

August 13, 1909

  • Michael McCarthy, 40. Single. Death certificate gives no information as to his origin, but does indicate he is buried in Miller.
    Find-a-Grave Memorial
  • Joseph Kolda, 37. Single. As with McCarthy, the death certificate gives little information other than he his buried in Miller.
    Find-a-Grave Memorial

The explosion, which occurred on Friday the 13th, was indeed unlucky for the two men who were blown to bits. The article in the Times actually gives a lot of detail about the explosion and it's aftermath. It also gives a rather detailed description of some of the workings of the mill which it says occupies some 640 acres and employs 250 men. There are, of course, some inaccuracies, like reporting that the previous explosion which killed one man occurred six years previous when it was a mere two years.

Open the Hammond Times article in a new window.

November 12, 1912

  • William Halpin, 31. Miller. Married with a child. Lived in Blankville.* Buried in Blake Cemetery.
    A foreman who left a young wife and a baby of three months.
    Find-a-Grave Memorial
  • Carl O. Carlson, 31. Single. Aetna. Miller Cemetery per death certificate.
    Oscar Carlson's brother, who he had not seen for ten years, arrived the day before Oscar was killed. They had only a few hours together.
    Find-a-Grave Memorial
  • William Johnson, 38. Aetna. Divorced. Two memorials to him in Miller Cemetery Find-a-Grave but he is not buried there. Buried in Hobart per the death certificate and newspaper article. Has then, three memorials.
    Find-a-Grave Memorial in Hobart Cemetery.
  • Carl John Johnson, 37. Miller. Buried in Miller Cemetery per death certificate.
    More information on Appendix One.
    Find-a-Grave Memorial.
  • Charles Smith, 28. Single. Aetna. Buried in Chicago. Newspaper says his body will be shipped to Chicago after services in Aetna. Burial location unknown.
    He was to have been married before Christmas to a Chicago girl.
    Find-a-Grave Memorial
  • John Slipcevitch,26, Aetna. Miller Cemetery per death certificate. Only his hand remained for his coffin.
    Find-a-Grave Memorial

The deadliest of the twelve explosions, and the last. There were financially crippling fires in 1914 and 1917, but I've not found more deadly explosions. Six men were killed and according to the initial article in the Lake County Times of Hammond, four others were seriously injured, three in Miller, likely from flying glass. Eric Matson, a Miller resident, was reported fatally injured, but he survived as he is on the 1920 census with his family, four of whom are buried in Miller cemetery.

The explosion took place in the number 3 packing house where the foreman, Halpin, and his helper, Oscar Carlson, were attempting to fix a packing machine. Two thousand pounds of dynamite exploded, instantly killing the six men and sending shock waves throughout the region. The funerals were held on the 14th and 15th attended by workmen as the plant shut down.

I've included three articles with this, two from the Lake County Times and one from the Gary Daily Tribune. It was, of course, widely reported across the country, from Oregon to Florida. As reports came in from around the region, the Times reported on the 14th that the blast was felt as far away as Windsor, Canada. Immediately following the blast, correspondents in Grand Haven, Michigan telegraphed to Chicago that an earthquake had shaken their town. The most damage was done in Miller, but if the reports are to be believed, the blast picked it's property damage victims like tornadoes can do: more damage was done to houses in Holland, Michigan than to the houses right in Aetna.

* Blankville was a new neighborhood north of Aetna and just east of Miller in what is that area between Elkhart Street and Clay Street.

Open the Lake County Times article in a new window.
Open the Gary Daily Tribune article in a new window.
Open the Lake County Times funeral schedule article in a new window.

Pages relating to the Aetna Powder/Explosives Company

Page created November, 2018.
Comments and questions? Email Steve Spicer at