Friday, April 27, 2012

Boom Town Plattsburgh

Dynamic businessman Wilson P. Foss (1856-1930).  
In his younger years he lived in Plattsburgh, NY 
where one of his companies was known 
for its considerable impacts on the area.

Have I ever mentioned the term "Plattsburgh smart" to you?

February 24th, 1886.  There was a problem at the Clinton Dynamite Company located two miles away from the village of Plattsburgh, NY.  Some nitroglycerine had frozen.  What to do, what to do?  Hey, why not use steam from a boiler to thaw it out?


January 11th, 1887.  A fire starts on the roof at Clinton Dynamite, probably caused by a defective chimney or furnace pipe.


April 10th, 1887.  A warm Easter Sunday, temps 70 degrees F or higher.  Some nitro is apparently left outside near a shiny tin surface.  Sunlight concentrates its rays on the tin and --


And since it's a holiday...

A stove was left burning inside a building where a small quantity of nitro -- just 600 pounds -- was stored.  The explosion outside sends hot coals flying.  Nine minutes later:


To build such a company so close to Plattsburgh makes one question the basic intelligence of the city leaders back in those days.  And to leave it operating, especially after the second incident...?  But when a local bigwig like the honorable Smith M. Weed is your business partner, why be smart?

The owner of the company, Wilson P. Foss, doesn't give up so easily.  After the second misadventure,  he announces he wants to relocate his dynamic enterprise on Crab Island in the middle of Lake Champlain.

A local newspaper, The Plattsburgh Republican, responds on the front page of its February 12th, 1887 edition with an editorial noting the various distances from Crab Island to certain points in the area of the village, e.g., from the island's nearest shore it's only two miles and seventh-eighths to the Court House.  Gee, why was the writer so worried?

During the Easter Sunday fireworks that would occur two months after this editorial is published, the explosion would be so tremendous that the stonework at St. John's Church would crack.  The blast would be felt in Burlington, Vermont, where its citizens would assume it was an earthquake.

As noted in The Plattsburgh Republican editorial, "Crab Island Too Close:"

"The simple statement of those measurements, taken from the United States Coast Survey chart ought to constitute sufficient objection against locating a dynamite factory upon this island which so completely commands the entrance and all approaches to Cumberland Bay and Plattsburgh harbor."

(A smart editor.  And I mean that sincerely.)

Fortunately no one was killed during the three incidents and four explosions.  In the first explosion one man ended up with his leg being amputated.  Foss was also seriously injured during the same mishap: he was thrown on to the ice of the Saranac River with wood particles and machinery, "stripped of all his clothing but his shoes."  It was also said that over 200 splinters had to be removed from the shockwave traveler's body.  (One report described the release of hot steam as "accidental."  If that's the case, why was the frozen nitro so close to the boiler?  Now where was OSHA?)

So Foss packed up his dynamite company -- the whole stick and caboodle -- and moved down to Haverstraw, NY.  Some locals, including newspaper editors, said good riddance.

Tragically on December 2nd, 1891 the Clinton Dynamite Works blew up again at its Haverstraw location.  This time four men were killed.  According to The Plattsburgh Sentinel (Jan. 1, 1892): "W.P. Foss, owner of the Clinton Dynamite Works, which exploded at Haverstraw a few weeks ago, gave a Christmas present of $1000 each to the four widows who lost their husbands in the disaster."

Such magnanimity might be the reason why Foss became mayor of Haverstraw from 1896 to 1903.  Or maybe its citizens were Plattsburgh smart.

Apparently Plattsburgh learned its lesson after the explosive days of the Clinton Dynamite Company.   After all, it wasn't crazy enough decades later to allow atomic weapons to be stored nearby, bombers with nukes flying overhead.

*   *   *


Portrait of Wilson P. Foss from Historical Society of the Nyacks Newsletter, Vol. 5, Issue 2, Spring 2009. The newsletter caption: Painting from Southeastern N. Y., A History of the Counties of Rockland etc., Lewis Historical Publishing, N. Y.

Background sources for this blast from the past were found through online searches.  Google provided some extra leads but most of the material was available at Northern NY Historical Newspapers under Clinton County Newspapers.

References to Foss's Feb. 24th, 1886 experience -- ending up with nothing but his shoes on after the explosion and that more than 200 splinters had to be removed from his body -- was found in a short bio in Amateur Billiard Championship of America: (Class A.) (1899), a public domain book scanned by Google.  Foss was quite the billiards player.  Apparently he enjoyed blasting balls instead of having his balls blasted.

I couldn't verify that Wilson P. Foss's middle name was Plosive.

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