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April 16, 1866 - Nitroglycerine at Wells Fargo and Co Office Explodes

The following is taken from a newspaper article that appeared in the Placer Herald, Auburn, California.


"On Monday, 16th inst., in San Francisco, at fifteen minutes past one o'clock, P.M., an explosion took place in the storeroom back of Wells, Fargo & Co.'s building, in G.W. Bell's assay office, adjoining California Street, which demolished everything with a circuit of 40 or 50 feet, including the whole interior of Bell's assay building, the storeroom and west portion of Wells, Fargo & Co.'s building, the back portion of the Union Club Rooms, and other apartments in the vicinity.

The explosion was powerful as to shake the earth like an earthquake for a circuit of a quarter of a mile. Every window in California Street, between Montgomery and Kearney, was demolished, and panes of glass were shattered as far as Third Street, a distance of half a mile. For some time after the explosion it was impossible to tell the cause of the calamity. Some asserting that it was a barrel of acid in the Assay Office; others said it was a steam boiler in the rear of the office; and others, that it was some kind of explosive material stored in the yard of Wells, Fargo & Co. It has since been ascertained to have been caused by Nobel's blasting oil, or nitroglycerine, a new explosive five times more powerful in its effects than powder. A box containing this liquid had arrived by steamer from the East, and when landed upon the wharf was found to be in a leaking condition. It had been shipped as general merchandise, and none were aware of the dangerous contents of the box. It was sent to the office of Wells, Fargo & Co. and placed in the rear of the building, among the unclaimed freight, where Mr. Webster, the freight clerk in the New York department of the Express office, and Mr. Havens, freight clerk of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, went to examine that in connection with another package claimed to be in a damaged condition. The last seen of these gentlemen alive, they were standing near the box, with several other employees, having tools as if about to open the box. It is supposed they made the attempt, when the explosion took place by concussion, which resulted in a terrible loss of life and destruction of property.

There was not a whole window for a long distance from the building in which the explosion took place, and in Brannon's block, opposite Wells, Fargo & Co.'s on Montgomery street, the Stevenson House, opposite, and in many buildings between California and Sacramento streets window frames and doors were generally shattered to fragments, while huge splinters of costly plate glass covered the streets. Fragments of human remains were found scattered in many places. In the auction room of Cobb and Sinton, on the east side of Montgomery Street, a human brain, almost intact, and other fragments of the body near it, were found. A piece of human vertebrae was blown over the buildings on the east side of Montgomery Street, where it was picked up in front of Squarza's, on Leidsdorff street. A piece of skull was lying on California Street, east of Leidsdorff, with other fragments of human remains, and a human arm struck the third story window of the building across the street." Other fragments of human bodies were found several days afterward, on the roof of Selleck’s daguerrean gallery, on Montgomery street, where they had been thrown by the explosion.

The Union Club occupying rooms over Wells Fargo & Co’s office were just setting down to dinner. Tables, crockery and other ware scattered around. So far as we could learn, no one in this room was severely injured. The plate glass on both sides of Montgomery street to Sacramento street is all shattered and on California street up to Kearny street for a block below, windows are completely blown out. In some places nothing but the sash is hanging. Not a whole pane of glass can be seen in the building occupied by Wells, Fargo & Co, nor on Stevenson’s building, on the opposite corner. The damage to glass alone for blocks around cannot be less than $30,000. A large number of people were slightly injured by the falling of glass in the streets, and in buildings as far away from the scene as on Sacramento street between Montgomery and Kearny.

The following persons are known to be killed and wounded.
Samuel Knight, Bank Superintendent, instantaneously.
F.E. Webster head of the New York Department, Mr. Haven of the Pacific Mail Co, and W. Jester, porter blown to pieces. John Gallagher, Killed. G.W. Bell, fatally injured and died in a few minutes.

Belonging to the Union Club, the following casualties are reported: Felix Duriveau, cook, killed. August Michel, second cook, killed. F. Rust, or F. Le Rey, third cook, severely, and it is feared fatally injured. W. H. Cox, steward, badly injured; supposed to be beyond recovery. Chinese assistant, (name unknown,) missing, probably killed. Another Chinese assistant (name unknown,) killed. John Maguire, waiter missing. J. H. Wright, waiter, missing. Wm. Smith, waiter, leg broke, will recover. Edward Kent, waiter, missing. Dennis O’Donnell, waiter, dead. James Burke, waiter, missing. The number of the wounded it is impossible to ascertain. Many are seriously hurt, and hundreds were wounded by the flying fragments of glass in the streets.

The S. F. Examiner says; “It is a remarkable fact connected with the late explosion, that every person sitting at the table at the Club House, at lunch, escaped unhurt, while every waiter in attendance (standing) was either killed outright or seriously injured. It is said that the man Cox was waiting up on a Mr. Ambrose; at the moment of the explosion he was in the act of placing dishes upon the table. Cox was mortally wounded, while Ambrose was raised out of his chair to the ceiling, his watch and money drawn as if by suction, from his pockets and yet he escaped uninjured. Had the explosion occurred under cover, instead of in the yard; it is probable that every building in the block would have been leveled to the ground. Nothing but the glass sky lights in Wells, Fargo & Co’s Club House building, saved that structure from entire destruction. The main force of the concussion went upward several hundred feet into the air, without any obstruction. The damage done to property was by the outward or expansive force.”

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A very interesting account . . . of a little excitement at lunch time in San Francisco.


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