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The Powder Mill Investigation

Posted by Maryanne Porter on May 11, 2013 at 2:00 PM


APRIL 26, 1898

The Great Explosion

It was a warm sunny afternoon and the workday was winding down as powder mill employees worked diligently to complete their 11-hour shift as they routinely did so many times before. The young men, some a mere 16 to 19 years of age, their hands stained black in color, were jovial and cracking jokes amongst their older peers. The men were eager to get off work, some looking forward to going home to a cool bath on a warm day, a full meal in their bellies, and the comfort of their wives and children, while others were eager to meet at the local saloon for a well-deserved pint of beer and to hang out with friends .


But this day would be much different than those prior. These men would not be going home to their wives and children, to eat a hot meal , or tuck their little ones in bed after a long-awaited bedtime story from daddy, nor would they be going to the local saloon to drink beer with their friends and flirt with the local ladies. This day would end much differently for the gun powder mill workers.

At 5:15 pm, on April 26, 1898, the first of a series of four explosions echoed through the small town of Santa Cruz as the gun powder mill and its employees succumbed to the worst tragedy in its history. The sonic boom of the explosions shook the ground from the plant of the gun powder mill – all the way to town – breaking windows in its path. Men, women, and children from the clock tower of Santa Cruz square looked on, only to scamper for cover as the continuous sonic booms echoed through the valley littering debris from the skies. Onlookers from town screamed in fright, as they knew what the explosions had meant -- death. Just moments earlier, women who were shopping in town with their children and chatting with their neighbors found themselves covering their children’s ears from the deafening booms, hiding their little eyes from the site before them as the sky filled with smoke, flames licked the tree tops, and splinters of wood, glass, and rock shot through the air like high powered bullets.


When the explosions ceased, the air was filled with the screams of frightened children crying in their mothers’ arms as the stench of gun powder and clouds of black smoke reached the heavens. Suddenly, the townspeople began to react as the terrible reality set in. Men stopped what they were doing and began running to the mill to check on their sons, fathers, or friends. Women handed off their children to neighbors to race up the hilltop to search for their husbands, their sons, or fathers. Chaos filled the hearts of the people of Santa Cruz as none of them knew if their loved one who worked at the mill was living, dead, or injured.

Meanwhile, at the gun powder mill the destruction of the explosion was evident everywhere the eye could see. People lay in shock, some holding their ears wailing in pain, dazed and disoriented. Many were bloody from head to toe due to shooting debris. The fire began traveling from treetop to treetop, engulfing the small powder mill village where local workers and their families resided. Nearby townspeople and those living at the Powder Mill Village pulled together with buckets and hoses – anything they could find to gather water in from the local creek to put the flames out and carry the injured to a nearby area they could use as a triage station.


By morning, the fires were put out but the devastation had not ended. As daylight approached, the smoky embers from the debris of lumber continued to smolder. The once green and plush tall redwood trees that stood proud and strong the night before were now empty smoldering black sticks. The ground was charred in black soot as ash continued to swirl through the air. The scar of the devastation went as far as the eye could see. But the townspeople’s plight did not end with daybreak as the morning light brought the daunting and horrific task of recovering the remains of loved ones whose lives were lost and an official count of those who were still missing.

Throughout the debris, men searched for the remains of their coworkers. Body parts were strewn throughout the powder mill and many of the missing were burned beyond recognition. The lucky ones died instantly and those not-so-lucky suffered agonizing pain before succumbing to their injuries.

A total of 13 victims died on April 26, 1898 as a result of the gun powder mill explosion. Two were brothers and two others’ bodies were found completely intact. According to an article in the San Francisco Call newspaper dated April 27, 1898 “Only one body was actually recognizable with his head still on its trunk. The rest of the remains could fit in a hat.”

A memorial for nine of the victims who were buried in a mass grave can be visited at the Santa Cruz Memorial Cemetery. The three remaining victims were buried elsewhere and one was never found. Below is a list of some of those victims, in all it is believed at least 35 men, maybe more, had died as a result of explosions while employed at the powder mill during its time of operation.

Guy Seward Fagen: 16 years old

Charles Miller: 16 years old

Luther W. Marshall: 18 years old

Ernest Marshall: 19 years old

Benjamin E. Joseph 19 years old

Ernest Jennings 21 years old

James E. Miller 27 years old

Henry C. Butler 45 years old

Charles A. Cole 51 years old





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On July 6, 1898 A news paper called the San Francisco Call posted this article:


Thrilling Description of Hardships at the Powder Mills

Captain-Doctor Supervisor Rottanzi, handsome and debonair, marched into the office of the Board of Supervisors yesterday afternoon, garbed in the natty fatigue suit of a captain of the army, brown as a San Joaquin farmer and delighted to be absent from his dangerous post.

"I tell you my friends" said he, "it is a great relief to get away from that confounded Santa Cruz powder mill. Why, I am just beginning to take long breaths again. It is a fact that I don't dare sneeze down there without putting my head in a blanket."

"If the military authorities want to keep Captain "Billy" Barnes from outgrowing himself, they should send him to my post for about six weeks. He would, if he survived the mental strain, come back a mere phantom and could have his clothes made over and get two suits out of one.

"Talk about mental anguish. Why, my tent is only forty paces from a silent horror in the shape of fifteen tons of powder; a short distance away is another sleeping volcano, and up the hill a little further is a nightmare that haunts my sleeping and waking hours worse than a guilty conscience. It is only a little matter of 200,000 pounds of concentrated death. Woo! It is horrible to think what would happen to me if that stuff should conclude to expand without giving due notice."

"The Coroner might find only an assorted lot of fingers as a result, and my friends might mourn over and bury the digits of Corporal Casey or Mr. Shultze, thinking it was my beloved remains." The other day I got some left-hand encouragement from an old employee at the works.

"How long have you been here? I asked. "Twenty-one years" he replied. " So long and not killed yet?" "Sure, there no danger.  Of course we had a little explosion a few weeks ago. It was only six tons of powder, blew the whole place clean as paper, though, there were 3 hearses over there a short ways and it was very funny, sure. The powder blowed them inside out and we never found a hair of them left."

"How did you escape?" "Oh! that was easy, I hid in the water trough and only got wet. Now be easy, captain; ate and slept well, for I've been here, as I told you, twenty-one years and never was killed. There's no danger."

"You say six tons blew the whole place clean as paper and there is no danger with fifteen tons of powder under my nose and a train -load a few rods away?"

"To be sure sir; because that explosion was just an accident!"

The investigation, on April 26, 2013, 115 years to the day Santa Cruz Ghost Hunters investigates the site of the Powder Mill explosion. This is what we found.


S.C.G.H concludes our investigation that evening at the Powder Keg house, currently a private residence, it is believed this Powder Keg House may have been used as a triage center for the dead and injured at the time of the explosion. The activity was noticeable throughout the investigation.




written by Maryanne Porter S.C.G.H

edited by Susie Dryden Fowkes



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