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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 16

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Great Iron Trail

Robert West Howard

G. P. Putnam's Sons
New York, 1962

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 18
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p216  Chapter XVII
Patent Blasting Oil

The frightful experience of the people of San Francisco in Nitro-glycerine has caused them to make that article contraband of trade. The agts. have managed to smuggle some of it into the interior. . . . Some parties, including the Rail Road people, are talking about manufacturing it on the ground and using it. . . . Letter to E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Company, Wilmington, Delaware, from Rodmond Gibbons & Company, San Francisco (January 30, 1867).

A typically drowsy Sunday morning introduced November 5, 1865 to New York City's Greenwich Village. The overnight steamers from Boston and Baltimore blew their whistles, slapped eddies along the North River piers, and set off the routine cussing of longshoremen while they wheeled Northern Spy apples, Maine potatoes, Gloucester codfish and Chincoteague oysters down cargo ramps. Along Greenwich Street early churchgoers took to the gutters to avoid the drunks sprawled snoring on the sidewalks.

In his cubbyhole off the lobby, the porter of the Wyoming Hotel reached for his broom, stumbled against a box, winced and gave it a kick that slithered it against the wall. The box, black with shoe-polish stain, was about two feet long and a  p217 foot high. A guest had left it in the checkroom early in the summer, but seemed to have forgotten about it. The porter had taken to using it as a footrest for guests who stopped by for a shoeshine.

He reached again for the broom, sniffed, and turned. A trail of orange-red smoke was eddying across the floor. It had a gunpowder odor, but smelled greasier and somehow sourer. The smoke was jetting from the box like steam out of a petcock. He scooped it up, scurried across the lobby, and heaved it into the center of Greenwich Street. As it hit, a great flame gushed to the rooftops. The roar left him stone deaf, staring numbly at the cobblestone slivers quivering in his arms and chest and the blood oozing down his hands. The center of Greenwich Street was a slimy yellow hole, its mud still boiling. Across the street, sunlight filtered into jagged new holes in house fronts.

Hours later, at a hospital, the porter told detectives all he could remember about the box. The owner's name had been scrawled on it — a German name, something like "Bohrs" or "Bahrs." Whoever he was, he had acted like a gentleman, given a two-bits tip, and said he would call for the box as soon as he "closed a business deal." The vicious power and the rotten-orange smell eddying from the hotel identified the box's contents as the nitroglycerine compound called "Patent Blasting Oil." It was its second appearance on the Atlantic seaboard. Five months before, a Colonel Otto Burstenbinder had brought the first batch in from Hamburg, Germany and demonstrated its potency to a group of engineers and gunpowder salesmen by blowing impressive holes in a cliff of the lower Palisades. Manufactured in Sweden by a chemist named Alfred Nobel and his German partner, Dr. C. E. Bandmann, Patent Blasting Oil was a mixture of gunpowder and the nitroglycerin discovered about 1846 by the Italian chemist, Ascanio Sobrero.

Liquid nitroglycerin was so sensitive to heat, or even to a tiny impact, that no explosives factory would produce it until in 1863 the Nobel family developed this method of mixing it  p218 with gunpowder. One batch had wrecked the family factory near Stockholm, killing Alfred Nobel's younger brother and four others. But miners and highway engineers in central Europe were using Patent Blasting Oil on "hard-rock" jobs.

New York police decided that the mysterious "Bohrs" or "Bahrs" brought the box of Patent Blasting Oil to America with the intention of becoming a salesman-demonstrator. He was never traced, but the publicity he produced via the Greenwich Street explosion brought inquiries from New England quarrymen, Pennsylvania miners, and finally from the Union Pacific Railroad.

Soon after Grenville Dodge signed on as chief engineer and the Casements' work train began clanging the great iron trail, Durant's commissary opened negotiations with Nobel for test shipments of Patent Blasting Oil that could be tried out by the crews who would be blasting bridge foundations in the Platte Valley.

Meanwhile, Nobel-Bandmann explored the most obvious markets in the United States — the hard-rock borings into the Mother Lode of northeastern California and the Comstock Lode of western Nevada. Dr. Bandmann's brother Julius headed the San Francisco wholesalers — Bandmann, Neilson & Company. The firm became the Pacific Coast agent for Patent Blasting Oil, and received its first shipments via Cape Horn about the time of the Greenwich Street explosion. Some of the Virginia City and Grass Valley mine shafts were a mile deep and used hundreds of kegs of blasting powder each week. Central Pacific Railroad was in the market, too, blowing more than a hundred kegs a day for rock cuts and tunnels in the Sierra. Any explosive of high potency, however temperamental, was worth an experiment.

The steamer European docked at Aspinwall on the Panama Isthmus on April 2, 1866, and began unloading freight for California. Next morning the longshoremen dragged a heavy case assigned to Bandmann, Neilson & Company over to a loading net, tossed a few bundles atop it, and signaled to the  p219 winchman. As the net lifted, both the European and the pier vanished in an orange flame. Chunks of burning wood and charred flesh thumped on tin roofs half a mile away. Port officials estimated a total of sixty dead and a $1,000,000 loss. The Bandmann, Neilson case had contained seventy boxes of Patent Blasting Oil.

The gory details still rated follow-up stories in San Francisco newspapers on April 16. That noon hour the granite warehouse of Wells, Fargo & Company on Montgomery Street burst with a volcanic roar, belching a searing flame and acrid cloud; firemen found fourteen dead and a score of maimed in the ruins. Wells, Fargo officials admitted that a shipment of Patent Blasting Oil had been carted to the rear platform of the warehouse for delivery to Bandmann, Neilson. The City Council passed a law that forbade transportation of the mixture within the city limits.

The New York City, Panama, and San Francisco explosions, occurring over a six months' period and echoed by angry newspaper editorials, stepped up Nobel's research for a blending agent that would make nitroglycerin less volatile. He finally discovered such a mixture, late in 1866, by saturating diatomaceous earth with nitroglycerin. He prepared the mixture in paper-covered sticks, like oversized Chinese firecrackers, and named it Dynamite. But dynamite was too late for the Pacific Railroad.

By the summer of 1866, Central Pacific's need for explosives was creating a market shortage, even though two or three firms in the Bay Area manufactured both sodium-nitrate and potassium-nitrate types of blasting powder. As California agent for E. I. du Pont de Nemours, Rodmond Gibbons kept a close watch on developments and relayed the local trade gossip to Wilmington. On May 18, 1866, he reported: "The R. R. Co. is consuming 175 to 200 kegs per day and they have been getting powder at times from Parker and us, as we have reason to believe when the Cal. Co. could not keep them fully supplied." Just one month later he admitted that "instead of  p220 trying to sell Blasting Powder we are oblige to husband stock, to protect the mining interest. If we & Parker chose to do so, we could dispose of our entire stock to the Rail Road Co's Agt. & leave the miners in the lurch."

During June, Gibbons opened negotiations with an agent of the Associates for 15,000 kegs of niter powder at $3.75 a keg and a comparable order of "soda powder," all to be shipped in iron kegs (so that moisture would not be absorbed during the six months' sail around Cape Horn). He wrote Wilmington:

The R. R. Co. have eleven thousand Chinamen now employed grading and tunneling through the mountains, and are consuming 300 kegs per day. As nearly as we can learn, it will require two years for them to get through with the heavy grading. The controllers of the R. R. Co. belong to that smart class of men who are inherent sharpers & who always take a roundabout means to attain their ends in preference to a straightforward course. They buy the 15,000 kegs through a broker instead of coming to us direct. Most of their powder they use in bank blasting, say from 15 to 25 kegs at a time, so the soda powder will answer their purpose, provided the packages are secured against the ingress of air. The R. R. men seem to believe that there is not enough powder made in the U. S. to supply their wants and have been encouraging shipments from England. The sale we have made will put a stop to English importations.

But, again, Huntington, Crocker, Stanford and Hopkins were "shopping around." The bid for du Pont powder seems to have been a gesture to bring the California companies into line with lower prices. A few weeks later Gibbons sent his agent John Skinker up the Bay to sales-talk Charles Crocker into a purchase of du Pont gunpowders. Skinker wrote the following report of his interview:

Crocker had just returned to town from Stockton, and I called at his home at 7½ o'clock, and had a long talk with him. He informed me he had a contract with the California Powder Co. to take from them 2500 kegs per month, for which he paid them $2.75 nett, but he could consume even more than that amount. I finally offered him 5 to 7 thousand kegs at $2.60. He then made  p221 me the offer of $2.25 for it, which of course I declined. He stated he could give no more for it, as he was satisfied imported powder was weakened or lost much of its strength by the voyage to San Francisco, and he was satisfied a keg of California Powder would do ⅓ more work than any imported powder brought here. I tried to convince him otherwise, but he insisted it was so, and said all his workmen were of the same opinion, although they were at first prejudiced against our domestic Powder. He said Hopkins & Huntington were of the same opinion as myself, as to the superiority of DuPonts & Hazzard Powder over the California make, and he thought I could make them a sale of it. I then made a search for Mr. Hopkins but could not find him at home or elsewhere.

Crocker's zestful defense of local industry was hokum. On October 29 the ship Templar delivered 4,000 kegs of blasting powder at Central Pacific's wharves. The Templar was out of Boston, where the Federal arsenal had been auctioning off gunpowder made "surplus" by Lee's surrender the year before. Similar auctions were under way at the Army arsenals in Watervliet, New York, and St. Louis. Central Pacific and Union Pacific bid in lots at all three places and got some of it for $1.50 a keg. (Testifying before the Senate's Pacific Railway Commission in the 1880's, Collis Huntington sniffed his disgust of "wartime profiteers," and said that blasting powder "went up to $15 a keg." But 90 per cent of Central Pacific's blasting operations occurred during 1866‑7‑8.)

Although shrewd shopping and the purchase of War Department surpluses helped the Associates hold down Pacific Coast gunpowder prices, they served even better as a method for concealing the railroad's upcountry manufacture of nitroglycerin. Gibbons finally heard the rumor in late January, 1867, and wrote du Pont that "some parties, including the Rail Road people, are talking about manufacturing it on the ground and using it . . ." By March he had enough confirmation to report, "The Rail Road Co. are experimenting with Nitroglycerin & the directors say they intend to make use of it largely." In June, he relayed the story that "one of the foremen  p222 on the line of the R. R. works has recently fallen a victim to Nitroglycerin. He was 'sounding' for a new blast, and struck some of the material that remained unexploded in the former blast & exploding under his blow, it killed him."

What actually happened in the high Sierra and Wyoming gorges as a result of America's first massive use of nitroglycerin is another great-iron-trail mystery. Both Central Pacific and Union Pacific manufactured it in log-cabin factories deep in the wilderness. Then the deadly "stuff" was carried pack-a‑back, or by mule cart, up the mountains to the bridge gangs and tunnelmen. Chinese and Galvanized Yank laborers learned to fire it by trial-and‑error methods that maimed or killed hundreds of them. Some of the rock cuts and tunnels still used by Union Pacific and Southern Pacific across Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and California are monuments to the unknown dead of nitro's terror reign across the vanishing "Desert."

Neither Central Pacific nor Union Pacific records indicate that any contractual agreement was made with Nobel-Bandmann. The formula for nitro was known to many chemists. Union Pacific built its first nitro plant outside of Julesburg during the summer of 1867. But it trailed Central Pacific by six months. The Gibbons letters to du Pont indicate that Crocker had his plant operating by January or February, 1867. He hired James Howden, a chemist who had recently emigrated to San Francisco from England, and built a log-and‑stone factory for him on a lake near the west end of Donner Pass, far back from the wagon road and right of way. Freighters delivered the retorts of glycerin, nitric acid, and other ingredients that Howden needed. A crew of Chinese laborers — and no one ever told how often it was necessary to replace them — carried out Howden's orders for mixing batches of nitro as it was needed at railhead and at the tunnels. Within a few months, reports told, Howden was "drinking to excess" and the Chinese did the blending alone.

But Chinese heroism was commonplace all across the Sierra that winter. Locomotives crossed the Sierra crest on log rollers,  p223 hauled by 500‑man teams. Thousands slept in ice caves, cut off from provisions for weeks at a time. Others worked from dawn to dusk suspended in wicker baskets that swayed a thousand feet above a river's rapids. The phrase, "Not a Chinaman's Chance," became an American simile because of the heroism of the coolies in the high Sierra during the winter of 1866‑7.

[image ALT: A watercolor of a sheer cliff overhanging a railroad track under construction. Two teams of six men, wearing flat wide-brimmed straw hats, are each laying a rail on the completed ties; while above them, dangling from the cliffs in six large baskets suspended by ropes, other men work. It is a view of Chinese coolies working on excavation and track-laying on the Central Pacific Railroad in th 1860's.]

A painting by the Chinese artist Jake Lee, one of a series on Chinese-American history produced for Kan's Restaurant in San Francisco, depicting the wicker baskets used by coolies on the Central Pacific Railroad. Kem Lee Studio, San Francisco, California

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Page updated: 8 Jul 13