Off Beat: Thawing dynamite in stoves was standard practice

Published:

 

So that's why 13 sticks of dynamite were thawing in Mrs. Walker's kitchen stove when the house blew up:

"The dynamite was for blowing stumps," explained John Walker. His grandmother was one of three people killed in the explosion 112 years ago.

The Vancouver Independent's account of the 1901 tragedy led into our Wednesday story about a newspaper-themed exhibit at the Clark County Historical Museum. The summary indicated that "Walker had put the explosive in the oven to thaw."

It was an intriguing note, but one that seemed destined to be — as the finer points of century-old stories often are — a dead end.

But Walker knows what happened; his father told him. And after our story ran, the Felida resident called to share details of the accident that killed Celestia Walker and two of her adult children, Eli Walker and Julia Bailey.

The family had just settled on a Manor-area farm about 10 miles north of Vancouver.

"They were clearing land," Walker, 89, said.

It was January, and "It was standard practice to warm up the dynamite," Walker said.

"The methods may vary. I understood from dad that Eli had put it in the warming oven," rather than the stove's baking oven.

Not an isolated incident

This was not an isolated incident. Online, you can find a British government report on the topic, "Accidents in Thawing Dynamite in the United Kingdom." It cited 101 incidents between 1871 and 1905, resulting in 80 deaths and 123 injuries.

A 1914 Travelers Insurance book on farm safety (also found online) warns: "Dynamite freezes at a temperature considerably above the freezing point of water." Thaw it carefully, "in a special thawing kettle, made for this purpose and heated by warm water."

Walker's father wasn't in the house when it blew up, by the way. Henry Walker went to the barn to milk the cows, and his sister — Julia Bailey — went with him.

"Then she went back to the house and got killed," Walker said. "Why? For the rest of his life, this bothered my father."

— Tom Vogt

Off Beat lets members of The Columbian news team step back from our newspaper beats to write the story behind the story, fill in the story or just tell a story.