Santa Cruz County History - Making a Living

The Great Explosion of 1898
by Barry Brown

Photograph of the Interior of a Guncotton Mixing Building and Workers
Interior of a Guncotton Mixing Building and Workers
Photograph Courtesy of Special Collections, UC Santa Cruz

On April 26, 1898, at 5:15 in the afternoon, next to a guncotton mixing building like the one in the photograph above, a series of huge explosions killed thirteen men and boys, including two sets of brothers. The powerful concussions instantly shattered all the windows in the two mansions on the bluff above, cutting Bernard Peyton, the Power Works' Superintendent, with flying glass and narrowly missing his wife Estelle who had just left the room. Down below, Arthur Peyton, Bernard’s youngest son, was hit by flying debris and blown into the San Lorenzo River. In Santa Cruz, windows cracked, the ground shook, and fiery debris fell on Mission Hill. The April 27, 1898, edition of the Santa Cruz Sentinel reported:

At 5:15 P.M. Tuesday this city was startled by three explosions following each other in rapid succession. The heavy smoke that hung over the Powder Works told too well where the explosions had taken place. Soon Pacific Avenue was crowded with people whose faces bore anxious looks, for many had relatives and friends employed at the mills. Soon every available vehicle was on its way to the scene. When the Sentinel reporter reached a point within a half mile of Powder Mill Flat another explosion occurred.

By this time, many of the houses in Powder Mill Village (see Historical Marker #24) were on fire and people were frantically searching for friends and relatives. The fire spread rapidly, and by 6:15pm, the Naval Reserves were called in to help fight the fires which were moving towards the powder magazines to the south (see Historical Markers #27 and #28) which placed the entire Mill in jeopardy along with a good part of Santa Cruz. Volunteers fought the fires all night, and at first light, began the sad and grisly task of collecting and identifying bodies and body parts. It took over a week to find all the remains and determine who had been killed. Most of the bodies were beyond recognition and one was never found. In all, thirteen had been killed and twenty-five injured, making the accident the deadliest of its kind in the fifty-year history of the Powder Works. In Santa Cruz Memorial Park Cemetery today, there is a grave with a tall stone stele, donated by the people of Santa Cruz, marking the final resting place for 9 of the 13 victims; the others were buried elsewhere. As with all the explosions at the California Powder Works, the cause was never discovered.

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View similarly tagged articles:

dynamite, powder works, San Lorenzo River


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