Windows shattered and people were hurt by flying glass. A teenage girl lost an eye. Homes were destroyed. A boat in the bay was blown 20 feet into the air. And a major employer’s plant was in ruins, never to open again.
As the nation slid into the Great Depression 85 years ago, the explosion at the Puget Sound and Alaska Powder Company mill near Mukilteo was awful news. Still, Sept. 17, 1930, was one lucky day.
It happened around dinner time. Most of the plant’s more than 50 workers had gone home.
“It’s nothing short of miraculous that there weren’t fatalities,” said David Dilgard, an historian at the Everett Public Library.
Drive along Mukilteo Boulevard today, and before reaching Mukilteo from Everett you’ll see a small “Powder Mill Gulch” sign. Have you ever wondered why?
Christopher Summit, vice president of the Mukilteo Historical Society, will tell the story of the powder mill explosion during a talk at 2:30 p.m. Oct. 18 at the Hampton Inn in Everett. It’s sponsored by Historic Everett, a local preservation group.
Summit, 54, is a 1979 Mariner High School graduate. He’s a tour guide at the Future of Flight Aviation Center &Boeing Tour. Long interested in history, in the 1980s he worked as a National Park Service ranger historian at the Little Bighorn Battlefield in Montana. The national monument is where Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and more than 200 other U.S. Army soldiers died fighting Lakota and Cheyenne warriors in 1876.
As a boy, Summit spent time in the woods behind his south Everett home. “It had been logged by 1919, but as a kid I’d go into the second-growth forest and find busted logging tools,” Summit said. “I knew about Powder Mill Gulch. I knew the mill had blown up.”
At the library, Summit read Everett Herald accounts of the 1930 explosion and talked with Dilgard to find out more. He learned that the factory was founded in the narrow ravine in 1906. “They were putting out tons and tons of blasting powder in those early days,” Summit said.
Much of that powder was used to destroy stumps left when trees were cut to clear the land. “It was used for stumping. There were a whole lot of stumps,” Dilgard said.
In 1975, Dilgard and Margaret Riddle, a library historian who is now retired, interviewed Everett businessman Loren Baker. Their oral history interview with Baker is available on the library’s website. Riddle also wrote an essay about the powder mill blast for the HistoryLink website.
Baker, who died in 1986 at age 90, had co-owned a different powder plant in the Bothell area. When he was interviewed in 1975, he remembered the 1930 explosion: “It occurred at 5:50 that September afternoon,” Baker said. “There were only three people in the plant, and I talked to all three. There was a fire in the ammonium nitrate drying house.”
Riddle’s 2006 HistoryLink essay explained how the fire started.
“Plant manager W. E. Crosby had previously instructed workers to screen and reuse the ammonium in order to save costs,” Riddle wrote. Waste had accumulated during the day. In cleaning up, plant worker Clarence Newman — the last one to leave before the blast — scraped the waste across a screen. “The particles spontaneously combusted, setting off sparks,” Riddle wrote.
Powder Mill Creek was the only water supply, and Newman saw he couldn’t put out the fire. All three workers escaped unhurt.
“Those three men got clear of the plant,” Baker said in the interview. “The fire then spread into the nitroglycerin house that had 6,000 pounds of raw nitroglycerin stored in tanks. … when it hit the nitroglycerine house, the whole thing went.”
Dilgard said Baker talked about being in a barber’s chair in Everett when he felt the huge blast, which sent a yellowish mushroom-shaped cloud skyward.
An Associated Press article, dated Sept. 18, 1930, told of the pandemonium that followed. Two women were seriously hurt, 40 other people had cuts and bruises, and the countryside “was torn and battered like a battlefield,” the article said.
Destroyed were the company’s office, gelatin house, packing house, boiler house and nitro house, a loss of about $500,000. For a time, the disaster halted train service. Windows were shattered in more than a dozen downtown Everett businesses. Nearly every home in Mukilteo was damaged. The explosion was felt as far away as Seattle and Snohomish.
“It was a Paul Revere thing once the fire started,” Dilgard said. “Neighbors were going along the boulevard to warn each other. In those days along Mukilteo Boulevard, everybody knew everybody. People were saying ‘The mill’s on fire, it’s going to blow.’”
Dilgard, who grew up in the area, remembers an older neighbor telling him that when people heard about the initial fire they feared the worst. “Ed Bjorkland used to live right down the road from me. He said they expected a massive loss of life,” Dilgard said.
Much was lost that day, but not a single life.
“It’s a thrilling story,” Summit said.
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Learn about gulch explosion
Historic Everett is sponsoring a talk by Christopher Summit about the 1930 explosion at the Puget Sound and Alaska Powder Company mill. The site is now Powder Mill Gulch just off Mukilteo Boulevard in Everett. The talk will be at 2:30 p.m. Oct. 18 at the Hampton Inn, 2931 W. Marine View Drive, Everett. Cost is $5; free for Historic Everett members.