The blast that rocked Washington

July 15, 2017
Image description
Photo courtesy of Jerald Colmery
Laura Bigley Phelps stands with her daughter Helene Colmery and grandchildren, Jerald and Jeanne, in this 1947 photo. Laura was 8 years old when her father, Sam Bigley, was killed in a spectacular explosion on East Maiden Street.
Image description
A crowd gathered around the crater created by the July 17, 1891, explosion on East Maiden Street in Washington that killed Samuel Bigley.
Image description
The July 17, 1891, nitrogylcerin explosion heavily damaged the East Maiden Street homes of Lee Minton, right, and Workman Hughes. The second story and roof of the Hughes house were later rebuilt, and the house is still in use.

The morning of July 17, 1891, was bright and clear and 65 degrees when Sam Bigley, a cigar clenched in his teeth, halted his wagon at the corner of South College and East Maiden streets in Washington. His wife stepped down and waved goodbye to her husband as he snapped the reins and headed east along the National Pike toward Waynesburg.

She would never see him again.

Mrs. Bigley walked to the corner and turned right heading for the Hotel Main, where her daughter, 8, and a friend of the child, a year or two older, were waiting. The three of them, who had accompanied Sam the day before on the long ride from their home in Mt. Morris, Greene County, had instead decided to take the much quicker and more comfortable train back to Waynesburg.

Mrs. Bigley walked toward the center of town and at 8:35 a.m. had reached Henry Hull’s shoe store, one building south of the hotel, when she felt a terrible shock.

“My God, my husband has been killed!” witnesses heard her exclaim.

A load of nitroglycerin

The Bigleys, their daughter and her friend had come to Washington for both business and pleasure. Washington was a bustling borough in 1891, at the height of the oil boom, and the woman and the girls had come along on the trip to shop. Bigley had come to pick up a load of nitroglycerin.

Bigley’s job was the most dangerous in the oil industry; he was a well shooter, the one who loaded incredibly explosive nitroglycerin into metal cylinders called torpedoes, sending them down deep shafts to blast and fracture sluggish wells and make the oil flow.

Earlier that fateful morning, with the girls still asleep in the hotel, Bigley and his wife had driven out Beau Street to a magazine (a storage place for explosives) off what is now Manifold Road. He had hoped to secure a large load of nitro and was disappointed that only 20 quarts were available. So, in the wagon with them to supplement their volatile load of nitro were a couple of cases of the next best thing, dynamite, which he had purchased the preceding evening.

About 10 minutes after dropping off his wife, as Bigley trotted out East Maiden Street, hot ashes from his cigar must have fallen into the hay covering the floor of the wagon used to cushion the explosives. It was just in front of the Lee Minton house at what is now 560 East Maiden that the burning hay reached the dynamite.

A reporter for the Washington Observer, who had been standing in front of the Female Seminary on Lincoln Street, less than a mile away, wrote:

“The first thing that was seen was a tall swirling column of yellow dust rising like a water spout into the air, and this was followed almost instantly by a deafening report. Such a noise had never been heard in this place, and the great hills taking up the sound echoed and re-echoed the report as mighty thunder. The great column of smoke as it did, on reaching a height of 100 or 200 feet, spread out over the entire heavens, and soon a mist of flying splinters filled the clear morning air … A great cloud of dust hung angrily over the spot for a moment and then came an awful stillness broken by the shrill whistles of locomotives.”

Where Bigley and his wagon had existed just a moment earlier was now a hole in the hard limestone road 4 feet deep and 6 feet across. The disemboweled carcasses of his horses lay 100 feet away; no trace of Bigley would be found immediately.

The brick walls of the Hughes house just 50 feet from the crater were left standing, but all the windows, doors and shingles were gone, nearly all the plaster blown off its interior walls, most furniture and household items destroyed. The Minton house next door was severely damaged, as well.

Nearby trees were stripped of all their leaves. Telegraph poles were broken, their wires twisted. The ground was littered with birds killed by the concussion. It would take about 38 seconds for the concussion of the blast to reach Canonsburg, where windows rattled and heads turned in the direction of Washington. About the same time, as S.B. Post was mowing a field of hay in East Finley Township, eight miles away, the force of the explosion jarred the seat of his mower and startled the horses so much that he had difficulty keeping them from bolting.

Ina Hughes, 5, had been sitting on a rocking chair on the porch of her grandparents’ home when the blast happened. She was later found in the side yard under the rocker, miraculously alive with only a few cuts and bruises. Her grandmother was in the kitchen at the rear of the house when the blast knocked her down. She ran into the backyard, where a beehive had been toppled, and the angry bees attacked the woman, stinging her numerously about the head, arms and face, so much so that it would take several days to recover.

Sadie Frazee, walking by a house 100 yards away, was struck in the head by a piece of the wagon, an injury from which she would also recover.

Amazingly, no one else was hurt, including the people traveling in wagons along East Maiden Street less than 100 feet from the explosion. Every building within 100 yards had been damaged to some degree.

When the dust had cleared and the curious began to assemble, it was noticed that the force of the blast had imbedded a horseshoe from one of the animals in the siding of Jacob Holder’s house.

Worried that all evidence would be destroyed by the hundreds of souvenir hunters scrambling to the site, county Coroner T.R.H. Johnson hastily summoned an inquest. What remained of Sam Bigley was collected in a peck basket. The Saturday, July 18, edition of the Washington Reporter was precise in its grisly description of the contents, gathered from as far as 150 yards from the crater. Under a headline reading “Shreds of Quivering Flesh,” the article stated: “Among the parts found were two pieces of scalp, with the ear attached to one, two pieces of jaw with teeth, some of the flesh of the neck being attached to one piece, a part of the backbone, a piece of rib, a finger and the tongue with that part of the lip with the moustache.”

A few days later, Bigley’s remains were buried in Green Mount Cemetery. His cohorts in the oil industry raised several hundred dollars to assist his widow and three children.

A nagging question

The story of Bigley’s demise was recounted several times over the next century in articles in the Washington newspapers, and I wrote a far more detailed account of the event in my 2014 book, “Washington County Murder & Mayhem.” But through all those years a nagging question remained: Whatever happened to Bigley’s wife and children?”

On July 17, 1951, the 60th anniversary of the explosion, the Washington Reporter noted: “What became of Mrs. Bigley is not known today, for she left Washington with her children, and all trace of her was lost by her people, who lived at Wilkes-Barre. In 1928, relatives made an effort to locate her and Dr. C.A. Skelton of Dallas, Texas, came to Washington, searching for a clue, but with what success is not known. Later it was reported that her son, Harry, was in the employ of the Union Switch and Signal Co. at Swissvale.

The fate of Bigley’s family might have remained a mystery forever if not for the efforts of Mike Bigley of DeLand, Fla., who has done extensive genealogical research on his family. Mike’s great-great-grandfather was Sam Bigley’s brother. After reading my book, he wrote me in an email: “In your book you mentioned that nobody ever found out what happened to Samuel’s widow and three kids. I’ve been able to track down some information about them … I don’t know exactly when she (the widow) died, but I was able to determine the fate of the three kids.”

What was most important was that Mike had the first names of Mrs. Bigley and her children, which were never mentioned in the newspaper articles. With this information, we have been able to discover Sam Bigley’s background, trace the movements of the family after his death, and even to locate his direct descendants. As it turns out, Sam wasn’t the only intriguing character in the Bigley family.

More tragedy

The old newspaper articles stated that Sam and his family had come to this area from Bradford, where Sam was employed in the oil business. That is true, but Sam was not a Bradford native. He was born in February 1854 in Logan’s Ferry, on the Allegheny River in Plum Borough, one of 12 children of Henry and Hanna Hosick Bigley. Henry was a well-known river pilot and farmer.

It’s likely that’s where Sam met Annie Geary, the daughter of Irish immigrants, and married her in 1880, when Annie was just 17. That’s where there first child, Laura Alice, was born Jan. 5, 1883. A son, Harry Ellsworth, was born in 1886, and another daughter, Gertrude, in 1889.

After Sam’s death and with no means of support, Annie turned to family, but not her own. She and her children moved to Plum Borough to stay with her in-laws. They would remain there for several years. In about 1893, Laura, then aged 10, came down with scarlet fever. She survived, but her auditory nerves were destroyed, leaving her deaf for the remainder of her life.

Tragedy struck the family again on Feb. 1, 1895, when 6-year-old Gertrude died. That same year, Annie married Frank Pleins, a Pittsburgh steelworker.

Henry Bigley, the late Sam’s father, was wealthy, and it’s likely that his money made it possible for Laura to enroll at Columbia Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb and Blind in Washington, D.C., later called Gallaudet University. Shortly after Laura started there, tragedy struck again. On Aug. 1, 1899, doctors were called to the Bigley farm and found Bigley, 74, then a widower, in bed with bruises on various parts of his body. He died the following morning. According to his housekeeper, he had fallen down a flight of stairs.

Six months later, the deceased’s son Hugh and daughter Arabella Lyons convinced the Allegheny County coroner to begin an inquest into Henry Bigley’s death. When Bigley’s will was filed, it was learned that the housekeeper had inherited all but a pittance of his estate. The body was exhumed in order to determine if Henry’s death was by accident or murder.

Annie, Sam Bigley’s widow, testified at the inquest, according to the Pittsburgh Daily Post. She said that Henry was somewhat feeble and had fallen several times when she had been living in his home. The coroner’s jury ruled that his death was accidental, having found not the slightest evidence to indicate murder.

Laura excelled at Gallaudet, where she would meet her husband, William Henry Phelps. Phelps, who had been deaf since infancy, was a year older and a year ahead of Laura and a member of Gallaudet’s vaunted football team.

Laura and William were married in 1904 and moved to Phelps’ hometown of Carthage, Mo. Laura’s first child was stillborn, but she would later have two daughters and two sons. Much of the information that follows about the couple comes from two of Laura’s grandchildren, Californians Jeanne Colmery Tuttle of Newport Beach and Jerald Colmery of Manhattan Beach.

Fortune and misfortune

In Carthage, Laura and William Phelps maintained what Tuttle described as an ecological farm. Phelps’ father, Col. W.H. Phelps, was a lobbyist and Missouri state legislator who championed laws protecting the rights of the blind and deaf. The couple later moved to Los Angeles, Calif., where William became highly successful in the real estate business. Laura however, would return to Missouri for the birth of each of her children: William Harlow in 1906, Josephine Wilson in 1908, William Howe in 1909 and Helene Lois in 1913.

On Aug. 14, 1927, the family would suffer another devastating blow when, at 45, Laura’s husband shot himself to death. Tuttle’s mother, Helene, was 14 years old then.

“Mom just thought he was very depressed,” Tuttle explained. “He was very well liked and had plenty of money, but there was a lot of prejudice and ignorance of the deaf. People thought they were retarded.”

Phelps left Laura an estate valued at $541,981 – quite a fortune at the time. Tuttle said that most of the money was siphoned away by banks and lawyers. There was money, however, to send the kids to college, and Laura had the house.

Colmery, 72, who retired after 36 years of work as an aerospace engineer, has many fond memories of his grandmother Laura, who died in 1982 at age 99.

“She spoke normally. She spoke very well her whole life because she had learned to speak as a child.”

Tuttle was a physical education teacher until 1993, when she went to work in the office for her husband, a builder. She had heard about the explosion from “Nana,” as Laura was known, but was surprised to learn of the existence of Gertrude, her grandmother’s sister who died so young. Tuttle believes that Annie – Sam Bigley’s widow – was still living in 1915 but does not know when or where her great-grandmother died. A search on the internet for a record of her death has been fruitless.

Echoes of the blast

The home of Washington merchant Lee Minton, so badly damaged by the explosion of July 17, 1891, was demolished. With the generous donations from townsfolk, he was able to rebuild.

Only the first floor of the Workman Hughes house could be saved. The second floor and roof were rebuilt, and the family continued to live there for many years. The house is still there.

Ina Hughes, the child in the rocking chair who escaped serious injury, later became Mrs. Bruce Wallace of Lawrence County. In 1937, at a Hughes family reunion in New Castle, she recounted her story and displayed the torn dress she was wearing that fateful day 46 years earlier.

Many examples of the force of the explosion were cited, but John Charlton discovered perhaps the oddest one when he visited the scene of the blast the following day. About 300 yards from the crater, Charlton found a silver dollar that he surmised came from Bigley’s pocket. The Washington Observer reported: “It had undoubtedly been lying with the face of the Goddess of Liberty against the reverse side of another dollar. The force of the concussion left the impression of an eagle on it. In other words, the dollar had an eagle on both sides.”

A. Parker Burroughs retired as executive editor of the Observer-Reporter in 2012.

Park Burroughs has been with the Observer-Reporter since 1972. He is the winner of numerous state and regional awards for feature, column and editorial writing. He is the author of two books, “Enter, With Torches: Recollections of a Grumpy Old Editor,” and "Washington County Murder and Mayhem." He retired in September 2012 but continues to contribute to the O-R’s news pages.

View More from this Author

TRENDING NEWS

Comments

blog comments powered by Disqus