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Allegheny Arsenal blast gets detailed look on 150th anniversary

Historic photo of the Allegheny Arsenal. Courtesy the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Department.

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Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2012, 8:58 p.m.

Some events are planned this week to commemorate the 150th anniversary to one of Pittsburgh's most tragic events and unsolved mysteries: the Allegheny Arsenal explosion, which happened on the same day as the Civil War's Battle of Antietam in Maryland.

Several explosions happened the afternoon of Sept. 17, 1862, at the Allegheny Arsenal in Lawrenceville, where many women and girls worked to make gunpowder cartridges, munitions and supplies for the Union Army. Investigators could not determine the cause of the explosion, which killed 78 workers. Theories abound, including a Confederate sabotage, static electricity from young girls' hoop skirts, or a horseshoe scraping the gunpowder-covered cobblestone streets. The tragedy was the worst civilian disaster during the Civil War.

The Senator John Heinz History Center on Saturday will host “Cold Case: Explosion at the Allegheny Arsenal” with the forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht. He and other historians and forensic experts will discuss the case from 1 to 3 p.m., and center visitors will serve as the “jury” and use the evidence to rule on what caused the arsenal explosion. The event is included with regular admission of $10; $9 for age 62 and older, and $5 for students and ages 6 to 17. Details: 412-454-6000 or

On Sunday at the actual Arsenal Park on 40th street, the Lawrenceville Historical Society and the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War will offer a series of programs. At 11 a.m., authors Tom Powers and Jim Wudarczyk will present a Power Point lecture about the explosions.

Demonstrations will be performed from 12:30 to 1 p.m., and 2:30 to 3 p.m. Music will be performed from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m., and 3 and 4 p.m. Events are free, and food will be sold.

At noon, Mary Frailey Calland — a Pittsburgh lawyer and author of “Consecrated Dust: A Novel of the Civil War North” — will present “The Arsenal Girls: A Tribute to the Victims of the Allegheny Arsenal Explosion.” Students from the CLO Academy of Musical Theater will portray three of the actual arsenal girls, two of whom survived. An actor will portray Alexander McBride, the superintendent of the arsenal laboratory who attempted to rescue some of the girls and lost his daughter — Kate, 15 — in the blast. Details: 412-235-1950

Kellie B. Gormly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at or 412-320-7824.

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