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Cal U Civil War Roundtable eyes Pittsburgh arsenal tragedy

| Saturday, May 3, 2014, 6:14 p.m.

On Sept. 17, 1862, as the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest single-day battle in American history, claimed more than 22,000 Union and Confederate casualties, including dead, wounded and missing, hundreds of miles away in Pittsburgh the war claimed the lives of 78 individuals, most being teenage girls and young females killed in a series of three rapid explosions at the Allegheny Arsenal munitions facility in the city's Lawrenceville section.

Alphabetically, from Elizabeth Ager to Margaret Turney, those 78 names are listed on a memorial monument in Pittsburgh's Allegheny Cemetery, located on Butler Street in the city. Another memorial plaque dedicated to their memory is found in Lawrenceville's Arsenal Middle School, but names are not included.

“This explosion resulted in the worst civilian disaster in the Civil War and represents a forgotten incident of American history,” said Jim Wudarczyk, who, along with Tom Powers, are the featured speakers at Thursday's California University of Pennsylvania Civil War Roundtable. Their presentation, “Death at Pittsburgh's Allegheny Arsenal: More to the Story,” is based on their 2013 article published jointly by the Heinz History Center, Pittsburgh; the Pennsylvania Historical Society, Philadelphia; and the Pennsylvania Heritage foundation, Harrisburg. “Someone has to honor those victims.”

Having met through the Lawrenceville Historical Society, Powers and Wudarczyk developed their comprehensive program regarding the Arsenal tragedy and have presented their findings to numerous area roundtables.

Wudarczyk, however, has an advantage: a Lawrenceville native, he resides one-half block from the remains of the old arsenal and grew up playing around the powder magazine and on the walls surrounding the facility. He proudly and modestly boasts that he is the fourth generation of his family — his daughter is the fifth — to live in Lawrenceville.

“This is the greatest unsolved mystery of the 19th century, but there will never be a definitive answer,” Wudarczyk continued. “This was an accident waiting to happen.”

Using local and national archives and area newspapers, Wudarczyk began researching the explosion in 1980, discovering information, albeit scattered as it was, dealing with the explosion, he noted.

“There was no chronological history of the explosion and this is something we put together,” Wudarczyk added. “We've analyzed all the theories and we are close to discovering what happened. We have examined the record of the coroner's inquest and the investigation of the military tribunal, looking at every angle.”

Their conclusion is simple: negligence, much negligence, contributed to the catastrophe. First, it was the government for not enforcing safety rules; workers at the facility for not abiding by safety regulations and the DuPont corporation, which supplied gunpowder and transported powder kegs to the Arsenal. In scrutinizing the evidence, a spark emanating from a horse's hoof appears to be the direct culprit.

“We're 99 percent sure that the spark was the direct cause,” emphasized Wudarczyk, 61, who also leads walking tours of Lawrenceville.

Located between 40th and 39th streets in Lawrenceville, from the Allegheny River up the hill to Penn Avenue, what had been the scene of the largest loss of civilian life during the war, explain Wudarczyk and Powers in their findings, is today the site of various warehouses.

Among the names of the victims are those of only six males among the 78 killed. When asked why so few males and, conversely, so many females, Powers explained it was partly due to males entering the Army, but also “partly because the administration at the Arsenal discovered too many boys were ‘goofing off' so they got rid of the boys and put the girls in those positions.”

While the ages of all the girls and men are unavailable, the youngest verified age was 12 and the oldest 33, with Powers estimating the average age to be about 19 years old.

“Incidentally, Robert Smith, the first victim, was 19 years old,” Powers added. “Males who perished were, to the best of my knowledge, full-grown men. They were for the most part laborers and building attendants. Smith was the room supervisor in the section that was destroyed in the first explosion and he was the first casualty. Smith was blown to bits when the first barrel of gunpowder ignited.”

A graphics designer first and by trade, Powers, who resides in O'Hara Township and received both his Bachelor and master of fine arts degrees from Penn State, illustrated events of the explosion and developed an outline of the buildings regarding the physical makeup of the Arsenal for a 2011 article, leading to their more in-depth investigation of what happened.

Contacted in 2009 by the Lawrenceville Historical Society to work on the society's newsletter — the September 2009 issue was his first — he began to dig up stories for publication, fitting in with his work on the history of O'Hara Township, including his book, “Portrait of an American Community: O'Hara Township, Pa.”

“Our stories,” Powers, 63, added, “involve higher level research, with Jim the principal writer of the newsletter.”

Wudarczyk's 1999 book, “Pittsburgh's Forgotten Allegheny Arsenal,” detailed his investigation of the explosion and the historical background of the Arsenal, but their collaboration represented the first time the arsenal was illustrated.

Powers, originally from Fox Chapel, is owner and sole proprietor since 1989 of Power Media and Design and boasts of four ancestors who fought in the Civil War: A cousin wounded in the Peninsular Campaign in Virginia; two great-grand uncles, one who died shortly after the War ended in 1865, with the other blinded in an accident after the War; his great-grandfather was wounded in the Wilderness Campaign.

Even though Wudarczyk, who earned a bachelor of science degree in education from Edinboro University, is a lifelong resident and fourth generation member of his family to live in Lawrenceville, none of his ancestors perished in the arsenal tragedy. He will soon retire after working 40 years in the forest products industry.

Powers and Wudarczyk will meet Roundtable enthusiasts in the University's Kara Alumni House. Doors will open at 6 p.m. for the 7 p.m. meeting. Additional information may be obtained by email: or phone 724-258-3406.

Les Harvath is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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