On This Day

T.A. Gillespie Company Shell Loading Plant, T.A. Gillespie explosion
New Jersey residents evacuate from the area of the Shell Loading Plant explosions.

On This Day: T.A. Gillespie Company Shell Loading Plant Explodes

October 04, 2011 05:00 AM
by Caleb March
On Oct. 4, 1918, explosions rocked the T.A. Gillespie Company Shell Loading Plant in New Jersey, killing scores of people and destroying the largest munitions factory in the world.

The Gillespie Plant Explodes

The T.A. Gillespie Company Shell Loading Plant was one of seven munitions factories in the Morgan area of South Amboy, N.J. The plant provided 10 percent of the shells used by American forces at the European front, and was the largest shell plant in the world.

On the evening of Oct. 4, there was a large explosion in one of the Gillespie Plant’s factory buildings. According to one report, the explosion happened “when molten TNT was being poured into 155 m shells.” The ensuing fire spread quickly, reaching nearby freight cars loaded high with shells. The fire and explosions lasted for two days and were felt as far away as Newark. More than 30 million pounds of explosives were set off, damaging many houses and killing as many as 87 people.

Damage was estimated at $18 million. An article in the New York Tribune described the destruction: “Besides the heavier blasts, caused by entire buildings exploding, there was the additional horror of shellfire. Hundreds of loaded shells were set off by the flames and soared through the air like monster rockets, exploding in the streets and over the roofs.”

The destruction of the plant came just 39 days before the end of World War I.

Explosion Leads to Influenza Outbreak

Thousands of people were forced to leave their homes and seek refuge in surrounding towns as a result of the explosions. During the massive exodus from the areas surrounding the Gillespie Plant, many refugees were exposed to cold weather for prolonged periods.

The result was an outbreak of Spanish influenza that affected more than 6,000 people. As many as 300 people died from the disease, due largely to a lack of medical supplies and a shortage of doctors.

Cleaning Up the Debris

The explosions scattered shells and shell fragments across Sayreville, N.J. As recently as 1997, nearly 80 years after the Gillespie Plant exploded, debris was still being discovered.

In 1993, the Army Corps of Engineers began an effort to clear 75 acres of potentially dangerous debris. A key area was the Eisenhower Elementary School and the surrounding school grounds. Army engineers searched the area using metal detectors, and after extensive searching and the removal of 20 explosive devices, the school was deemed safe in 1994.

Related Topic: Black Tom Island

In July 1916, two years before the Gillespie Plant disaster, a huge explosion of 2,000 tons of munitions on Black Tom Island in New York Harbor shook New York City. Flying debris damaged the Statue of Liberty and tremors were felt in Philadelphia.

The explosion was the largest explosion the United States had seen at that point; some historians believe that it was the first terrorist attack on American soil and point to evidence of German sabotage.

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