‘Powder men’ of Grays Harbor: Blasting into the everlasting

The “powder men” in the early years of the Harbor were a distinct breed who were willing to do their jobs fully aware that even the smallest error would blow them to kingdom come. They had to respect the incredible and unforgiving power of their charges. Awareness was paramount, and complacency had no place in their occupation. Here are three news stories from the early days when dynamite got the best of even the most experienced men.

Be forewarned: These tales are very explicit and not for the faint of heart.

D.C. BURKE DEAD — D.C. Burke of Copalis was killed by an explosion of dynamite at 5 p.m. Monday, and the remains were so badly scattered that all the body was not found.

Mr. Burke had secured a contract from the county for the opening of a piece of the county road near his home, and had a number of men employed at the work. On Monday evening just before quitting time he told the men to gather up the tools and go home and he would blast some stumps. The men heard two blasts expecting to hear more, but thought nothing of it until Mr. Burke failed to appear for the evening meal. They then went back and found the trunk of the body about 60 feet from the stump that was blown out, but could not find the rest of the body. Coroner Smits was notified about 2 a.m. Tuesday who ordered the body shipped to Aberdeen.

Mrs. F.J. Becker of this city, a daughter of Mr. Burke, did not hear of it until 8 o’clock Tuesday forenoon, as she was stepping from the car at Hoquiam, where she had gone to visit friends. Mr. Becker (20-years later he constructed the eponymous building in Aberdeen that still bears his name) had gone on the 7:30 a.m. train with a fishing party, to the Satsop River, about 30 miles from here, and a special messenger was dispatched to find him.

Mr. Burke was one of the oldest ranchers on the Copalis beach, having lived there about 14 years, and had succeeded in building fine property there. He devoted his time between his farm and raising stock for the market, and was considered one of the wealthiest men in that section.

He was about 45 years old, leaves a wife and five children; Mrs. F.J. Becker, of this city, Ray 15 years, Roy 12 years, Reilly 7 years and Teddy R, 3 years.

The body was brought to Hoquiam on Wednesday and will be interred this afternoon in the Hoquiam cemetery. – Aberdeen Herald, June 16, 1904

FATAL POWDER EXPLOSION — Charles Beaton, aged 65, powder man of the Saginaw Timber company, met death at South Elma Friday evening when an explosion of powder killed him instantly. The body was hurled through the air, striking a tree trunk some 300 feet from the scene of the accident.

No one witnessed the tragedy, In fact it was not until after the supper hour, when the continued absence of the powder man caused surprise, that he was sought. The head was almost shot away. The arms and legs were also torn off. Beaton came from Seattle three weeks ago. — Aberdeen Herald, March 3, 1914

BLOWN TO PIECES BY DYNAMITE — East Hoquiam is Shaken by Explosion of Sixty Sticks of Dynamite — Hoquiam, April 27 — William Johnson, a powder man for M.D. Hogan, the contractor, was blown to bits at 3 o’clock yesterday afternoon, while blasting rock near the intersection of Fillmore and Chenault streets. John Hill, his helper, is at the Hoquiam General Hospital, seriously injured as a result of the explosion, which would undoubtedly have cost his life also, save for the fact that he was standing 20 feet distant from the charge of dynamite which prematurely exploded.

The concussion was heard plainly in the business section of Hoquiam and was so heavy that it shook the residence district for many blocks from the accident, and windows in many places were broken.

As nearly as can be learned, Johnson was preparing to tamp in a charge of 60 sticks of dynamite. Between his feet stood a box containing a large amount of the explosive. Those who saw the accident are not certain, but it is believed the explosion came when the first blow of the tamping bar was made. It is stated also that the bar Johnson was using was steel pointed, in place of being wood, and that the padding had worn off. Johnson had been warned of this earlier in the day.

Johnson was torn literally to bits and small fragments of his body scattered for many feet in every direction from the scene of the tragedy. The explosion occurred at the foot of the hill and the top of the man’s skull and other small fragments of his body were found near the crest of the hill. Other fragments of flesh were blown into a small creek 20 yards away. The ground for many feet around the point of the explosion was specked with bits of flesh and blood. Pieces of Johnson’s clothing were found as much as 50 yards away.

Hill, who is a Finlander, unable to speak a word of English, lies at the hospital seriously hurt, but physicians state that he has a chance of recovery. His escape from death is nothing short of miraculous. He is injured along his side and his face is torn. The full force of the explosion just missed him.

The charge could not have been tamped in very tightly, since the face of the rock was but little shattered by the explosion.

The remains of Johnson were collected by County Coroner Hunter and Undertaker C.C. Pinnick, and removed to the Grays Harbor undertaking parlors. Little more than one-half of the body was found.

Windows for two blocks around in the neighborhood were shattered by the explosion. Crockery and dishes shaken from shelves and racks to the floor. Windows of several houses nearest the accident were little damaged, owing to the protection of a pile of stumps and the fact that they were not in direct line.

Houses five blocks away were shaken severely by the blast and the shock was felt much further away. Pedestrians on the streets in the neighborhood of the blasting say that they were nearly thrown from their feet, so violent was the shock.

Johnson went to work for M.D. Hogan on Monday and was recommended to Hogan as an expert blasting man. Johnson’s brother says the dead man had been a powder man for 16 years. He had the reputation of being one of the best blasters in the city. He worked for the city at the rock quarry for two months. No blame attaches to Hogan or anyone but Johnson himself. County Coroner Hunter and all who know anything about the circumstances, concur in this belief. — Aberdeen Herald, April 27, 1911

Roy Vataja is the son of Finnish immigrants, and his only experience with explosives is limited to blowing up green army men with firecrackers in the 1970s.