'Real heroes' remembered: Allegheny Arsenal tragedy claimed 78 workers in 1862

| Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012, 8:04 p.m.

As the burning walls of Room No. 6 at Allegheny Arsenal's laboratory began to collapse on children working there, Joseph Elder Bollman ran from the building carrying a girl.

He placed her on the ground and rushed back inside to search for his daughter.

“My mom told us when I was just a little thing about her (great-great-) grandpa,” said Sharon Zimmerman, 77, of Stevens Point, Wis., Bollman's great-great-great-granddaughter.

Bollman, a clerk, and his daughter Mary Abigail, 14, died along with 76 others on Sept. 17, 1862, when three explosions ripped through the arsenal in Lawrenceville.

“He was a hero,” said Zimmerman's son, Timothy, 52, of Junction City, Wis. “We all consider him the hero of the family.”

Some historians label the arsenal explosion the greatest industrial disaster of the Civil War. Seventy of the victims were women or girls, one age 12.

The tragedy brought attention to child workers in manufacturing but did little to promote change, said Carolyn Moehling, a professor of economic history and labor economics at Rutgers University.

“Manufacturers during this period depended on child labor, and many households depended on the income from children to meet their basic needs,” Moehling said.

The Army preferred to use girls for munitions work because their small hands could easily pack cartridges, said James Wudarczyk, author and researcher with Lawrenceville Historical Society. Unlike their male colleagues, girls did not smoke and so didn't carry matches.

Marie Gray of Shadyside found the name of her great-great-grandmother Mary Collins on the Allegheny Arsenal monument at Allegheny Cemetery on Friday for the first time.

“I was so emotional. I still am,” she said. “They were real heroes, those young ladies.”

Although her father and grandmother told the story of Collins' death in the arsenal explosion over the years, Gray was not able to locate a grave marker.

Collins also lived in Shadyside with two other victims, Eleanor and Sarah Shepard, Gray said.

All but 30 of the 186 civilians who worked in the laboratory were women and girls. Even the 15-year-old daughter of arsenal Superintendent Alexander McBride worked there. Kate McBride died in the explosion.

“Most of the girls who worked in the lab at the arsenal were paid between 50 cents and $1.10 per day,” said historian Allan Becer, who has written extensively about the Allegheny Arsenal.

Manufacturers opposed suggestions to restrict child labor, Moehling said, including an 1893 state House bill to impose a minimum age of 14 and maximum 10-hour workday for minors and girls. The law later passed with a minimum age of 13 and no restriction on female laborers.

After 1900, states enacted more restrictive laws. Today wage-and-hour laws limit hours and occupations for children.

Over the years, the arsenal explosion waned from public memory, Wudarczyk said. Even when it happened, it did not gain much attention because the Battle of Antietam raged that day, producing about 24,000 casualties — the bloodiest day in U.S. history, historians say.

The cause of the explosion is not known, though one theory is that an iron-rimmed wagon wheel sparked a fire that ignited spilled gunpowder.

Craig Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5646 or csmith@tribweb.com.

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