O.R. Mitchell does not have a face that shows
fear or shock. His business, after all, was delivering dynamite by truck for the H. J Denn Powder Company at Hawks Prairie, just west of Fort Lewis. Like the massive Du Pont Explosives Plant or the nearby Giant Powder Company in Lacy, the Denn Company produced industrial dynamite and high explosives for the military. On a typical day, Mr. Mitchell would load his rig with 40 lb. wooden boxes of dynamite and then bounce along on logging roads and mining tracks to deposit the explosives as near to the customer’s blast point as possible.
June 27, 1934 was not a typical day.
Mitchell worked the day shift along with about 15 other more experienced employees. The night shift would normally arrive at 4 pm and the tricky work of mixing nitroglycerin with wood flour, sodium carbonate, ammonium nitrate or cellulose nitrate would be turned over to the new crew mid way through the process. On this routine summer Wednesday, the day shift started and ended early, with the night shift stepping into the mixing room where an one and a half ton batch of dynamite was drying and unpacked. Mitchell headed home. It was just after 3.
Unimaginably, it seems an electrical motor on a chemical mixer, that had been sparking and had caused a fire just a few weeks before, ignited nearby wood framing in the primarily concrete powder mixing building. Less than and hour after beginning work, the men from the night shift found them selves fighting a growing fire just feet from a small mountain of dynamite. Roscoe Deeds was the first casualty. The flames caught his powder coated overalls and he was on fire when he dove into a safety tank of water that was there just for that purpose. The others got hoses started and began fighting the fire as fellow workers helped the badly burned Roscoe to a truck. Henry A. Denn Jr. the company owner’s brother jumped behind the wheel to rush Rosco to the hospital. In a horrible moment of mixed emotion, Henry saw his 12 year old son Oliver standing nearby and could only yell at him to run. Before they left the 10 acre yard there was an explosion and the mixing building disappeared.
Edward Parker and Charles Carpenter were on the hose and unbelievably survived the first blast.
Parker ran and was climbing the enclosure fence when a second, larger explosion went off. He was throw 100 feet but survived. Carpenter and seven others did not run and actually may have been moving toward the second blast. So was Hazel Epley, who was only 35 feet from the second blast. Of the eight buildings on the site only one, the heavy concrete storage building was standing as a massive grey cloud rose over the decimated dynamite factory. Ten people lost their lives in the two monstrous explosions that were heard in Tacoma more than 20 miles away. Among the casualties were Henry J Denn Sr. and his grandson Oliver, who had run toward his grandfather, and the heart of the second blast.
With heavy smoke and chemicals still hanging in the air and the treeline surrounding the plant looking like the aftermath of a forest fire, Mitchell’s truck pulled up to the unrecognizable scorched scene. He was among the first to wander into the hellscape where charred debris and bodies were scattered everywhere. He calmly walked over to the firemen, police and young Civilian Conservation Corps troops who rushed to the site and were dousing the many small fires. He informed them that there was no need for alarm but that the standing storage building was still near full of boxed dynamite. As he wandered around the former location of the company office building, something caught his eye and he reached down and picked up the employee time punch clock. It was frozen at 3:55 pm. Still day shift on any other typical day.
The H.J. Denn Powder Company was never rebuilt.
For more check out Tacoma Public Library images on line and HistoryLink.