Condensed and compiled from articles by Dick Reynolds and Steve Martin
Palladium-Item April 18, 2008
The disaster that struck downtown Richmond in 1968 wasn’t the first in Wayne County history
Recollections of the tragic double explosion in downtown Richmond April 6, 1968, brought to the minds of history buffs two 19th century Wayne County explosions.
The first, an explosion of a building used to store explosives, took place March 6, 1888. The second explosion leveled a house-grocery on Jan. 18, 1893.
March 6, 1888
According to stories in The Palladium and The Evening Item newspapers, the explosion took place in a 10-by-12-foot brick structure on an isolated portion of land south of Williamsburg owned by Oliver and David Hampton.
The Hamptons were agents of a New Jersey company that manufactured explosives and the men were known to be experts in blasting gas wells and stumps.
Newspaper reports said that the brick building housed 1,500 pounds of powder, 20,000 pounds of dynamite and a disputed amount of nitroglycerin.
It was theorized that David Hampton somehow set off the powder, which ignited the nitroglycerin. The dynamite was believed to be frozen, but was blown to bits along with the building.
As a result, Hampton and his horse died. There was disagreement about the fate of his dog.
According to newspapers, Jackson Chamness, standing in front of his home a half-mile away, was knocked unconscious. His wife, inside their home, suffered a severe concussion. Their home also was damaged.
The explosion, the newspapers reported, was felt in Williamsburg, where it broke windows, and Richmond, where it slammed doors, threw inkstands off tables and cracked glass, along with Cambridge City, Hagerstown, Winchester, Portland and Greenville, Eaton and Hamilton, all in Ohio.
On Jan. 18, 1893, Thomas Crabb and his family detected a faint smell of gas in the two-story frame building that doubled as their home and as a grocery at the corner of North 10th and I streets in Richmond.
Two kinds of gases were used in the house and the grocery, and for about a week the family wondered where the smell came from.
Crabb, a railroad engineer who managed the business with his wife, had built the dwelling-grocery just six months before.
A plumber came to investigate. Artificial gas pipes outside near the rear went into the cellar. Every foot was rigidly examined with a torch. No leak was found.
That night, the plumber sent his apprentice, George Boyce, to look. He was more thorough.
Mr. Crabb, his wife, his aged mother and his 8-year-old son were seated in the grocery near a stove.
Boyce checked the cellar with a torch. Nothing. He returned upstairs. Mrs. Crabb said she thought the smell in the closet was strongest.
Boyce went to the closet. “Well, if there’s any gas in here I’ll find it and…”
He struck a match.
The resultant ignition concussed into an explosion heard — and felt — all over town.
Houses were jarred in foundations. Windows shattered. Residents feared it was an earthquake and prayed.
The streets thronged with bareheaded women and shirtless men, shocked and cringing. A crowd collected on the corner where Crabb’s grocery and house had stood. The structure was leveled.
Screams and moans came from under debris. Mr. Crabb crawled out from a collapsed sidewall.
The crowd began looking for others.
Crabb’s wife and mother were found near the back of the structure. The older woman was semi-conscious with a head wound, a broken rib and badly sprained ankles. The wife had a broken leg and burns about the neck and hands. Crabb’s 8-year-old son was found crying, with a broken left arm and burnt hands.
The wounded were carried to neighbors and doctors were summoned.
Plumber apprentice Boyce could not be found. It was thought he was dead and buried beneath the wreckage. Surprisingly he showed up dazed, with his hands slightly burned and needing no medical attention. The blast had knocked him unconscious and several yards from the closet; he did not remember the moments clearly. He found himself under rubble and, as if waking from a dream, rose unsteadily to approach the crowd to ask what happened.
The next morning hundreds of people visited the scene and opinions were expressed. Was it natural gas or artificial gas?
It was determined if the main pipe had leaked, escaping gas could follow the supply pipe into the cellar beneath the closet. If there was a build-up of fumes in the enclosed closet Boyce’s match could have caused the blast.
The Gas Company insisted it was no fault of their pipes, but paid damages.