January 14: Tragedy at the Hazardville Gunpowder Mill

The community of Hazardville, Connecticut unintentionally lived up to its name on this day in 1913, when an errant spark of unknown origin caused a deadly chain reaction of four massive explosions at the Hazard Powder Company.

Situated on the banks of the Scantic River in the southern half of the town of Enfield, the Hazard Powder Company reigned as one of the largest and most successful gunpowder manufacturers in America for the better part of the 19th century. The powder mill was founded by Allen Loomis in 1836, but bought out in 1843 by businessman Augustus George Hazard, who promptly rebranded the company under his own name. Hazard, who was born in Rhode Island in 1802 and spent his childhood in Columbia, Connecticut, had spent several years chasing various business ventures in Georgia before buying out Loomis’ gunpowder mill and devoting all his energy and resources into making the Hazard Powder Company a multimillion-dollar corporation.

This birds-eye view map of Hazardville, published in 1880, depicts the many factories and buildings that made up the Hazard Powder Company.

Historically, Hazard couldn’t have picked a more favorable time to enter the gunpowder business: conflicts along the American frontier, the Crimean War in Europe, and mining operations driven by the quest for gold in the western United States dramatically increased demand for gunpowder in the 1840s and 1850s.

The Hazard Powder Company’s headiest years, however, were during the American Civil War, when the company’s sprawling factory village, consisting of over 120 buildings located in south Enfield, produced up to 12,500 pounds of gunpowder per day in order to keep up with domestic and international demand. After the war, between the reduced demand for powder during peacetime and Augustus Hazard’s death in 1868, the company experienced a period of decline, although it managed to stay afloat by marketing its product primarily to American frontiersmen and sportsmen. The DuPont company bought out the Hazard Powder Company in the 1870s, but continued producing gunpowder in Hazardville and marketing it under the Hazard name until 1912, when an antitrust lawsuit forced DuPont to split and rebrand most of its assets.

One of the many retail products sold by the Hazard Powder Company. (Enfield Historical Society)

One of the many retail products sold by the Hazard Powder Company. (Enfield Historical Society)

In a twist of fate, the rebranded Hazard Powder Company had  been operating under its new name – the Hercules Powder Company – for only a few months when the worst accident in its history forced it to close its doors for good. On January 14, 1913, a series of four massive explosions ripped through the heart of the gunpowder mill, killing two men and injuring dozens of others. Even though the mill buildings were specially designed to mitigate the force of accidental explosions, the blasts that occurred that day were too strong for them to handle, blowing out massive stone walls and damaging the buildings and machinery beyond repair. Nearby homes, churches, and even the town post office had their windows blown out and also endured severe damage from the shock waves. The blasts were so enormous that residents in Hartford and Willimantic – over 25 miles away – reported hearing booms and observing their doors and windows rattling.

Following the deadly accident, the DuPont company concluded that the blast damage was far too extensive to justify the massive costs of rebuilding the Hazardville factory. Instead, the company moved its powder-making operations to upstate New York, marking the end of a long and successful era of gunpowder manufacturing in northern Connecticut. The gunpowder business was booming in Hazardville – albeit in the worst possible way — today in Connecticut history.

Further Reading:

The Hazard Powder Company and the Hazardville Gunpowder Industry (1836-1913),” Enfield Historical Society

Cornel Garfman, “Hazardville’s Hazard: Gunpowder mogul made an impact on Enfield in the19th century,Journal Inquirer