Explosion at the Naval Torpedo Station, 1893

---Christina Anderson, Curatorial Volunteer

The Naval Torpedo Station (NTS), established on Newport's Goat Island in 1869, participated in testing and development of both torpedoes and the parts required for production. One of the components, of course, were explosives such as gun cotton. Tests conducted in Newport found this substance to be a suitable replacement for gun powder in torpedo warheads. On November 2nd 1882 the station was ordered to develop manufacturing of gun cotton for the navy. Full scale production was reached in 1884, and 10,000 pounds were produced with a staff of five. the exposive was widely used in torpedoes until around 1912.

The NTS gun cotton factory prior to the fire on July 3, 1893.
Working with explosives of any kind can be a dangerous undertaking. This was evident on July 3 1893 when an explosion wiped out the NTS gun cotton factory. The explosion was found to be caused by a fire that originated in the “picked-cotton room” where a machine picked apart raw English cotton. A foreign object in the cotton struck the teeth of the picker resulting in a spark that ignited the cotton. This fire spread through the wire netting in the top half of the door to loose cotton in the hallway. Dennis Mahan, first-class laborer, who was operating the picking machine, was alerted to the fire in the hall by a noise that resembled a door flying open and striking something. After discovering the fire, Mahan alerted the other staff to the situation by shouting "fire." First-class laborer Lauritz Julienssen was picking raw cotton by hand in another room and after hearing the call informed factory foreman Jeremiah Harrington.

The remnants of the factory after the explosion.
The fire spread to neighboring rooms and ignited a tank of dry gun cotton. The resulting explosion killed three men including Harrington, and injured ten others. These thirteen individuals were all working a hose attempting to fight the fire on the north end of the building. An investigation found that responders did not throw out dry gun cotton at the first alarm as directed. A further claim indicated improper use of the fire-fighting apparatus. The report suggested that had these actions been performed correctly, responders could have contained the fire and prevented the explosion.

Images courtesy of the Naval War College Museum


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