Margaret Bau was shivering as she remembered stories about her great-grandmother Gwendolyn Lake, the mother of one of 10 girls and young women who died horrible deaths in the borough 130 years ago this month.
Gwendolyn’s daughter Mary was 16 when she perished while working at the Powell Squib Factory on Feb. 25, 1889.
A series of explosions leveled the factory, where mostly young women and teenage girls worked to produce squibs – small explosive detonators used in coal mining.
During a 130th Remembrance of the Powell Squib Factory Disaster at Shawnee Cemetery recently, Bau and cemetery preservation association member Ruth Jesso placed a wreath of tulips at the base of a monument the mourning townsfolk had erected in memory of the victims.
“I come here often, almost every year,” Bau said before the ceremony. “I put a flower on the side of the monument where Mary’s name is, and on my relatives’ graves.”
Now 67 and living in Hunlock Creek, the Plymouth native recalled walking to the cemetery with her mother every Memorial Day to tend to family members’ graves, lay flowers on them, and then eat a picnic lunch.
Bau said it’s wonderful that the preservation society formed 10 years ago and organized the remembrance ceremony for the squib factory disaster victims.
Tom Jesso, president of the preservation association, said members decided a ceremony was in order given the 130th anniversary of the tragic event that deeply affected the close-knit West Side community and the sacrifices made by so many.
“That was a time when young girls sacrificed their childhoods to help their families survive – put food on the table and pay the bills. They missed their childhood,” Jesso said.
Holding a homemade squib, which was about the size and shape of a modern-day sparkler, Steve Kondrad, preservation association vice president and Plymouth Historical Society president, described the events of the day of the disaster.
Kondrad said the Powell Squib Factory was founded by John R. Powell, a Welsh immigrant. He patented squibs in 1883. The morning of the disaster, only a small crew was working because some machinery was down for repair.
Shortly before 1 p.m., the first of three explosions occurred.
“The third explosion literally blew the roof off the building and blew the walls right out of the building,” Kondrad said. “There was nothing (rescuers) could do for anyone who was inside the building.”
Kondrad said rescuers found the foreman, 40-year-old George Reese just outside the building, but obtained slightly different accounts of what might have caused the explosion. Reese died a day or two later, and the disaster was deemed accidental.
Several days later, the remains of the nine of the girls and Reese were interred at Shawnee Cemetery. The remains of one the girls, who was Catholic, was interred in St. Vincent Cemetery on Larksville Mountain, Kondrad said.
“The town was no stranger to explosions and disasters and death. People died in the mines every day. But this – this was something different,” Kondrad said. “When these girls were killed, it really moved the town.”
So, Powell and some local businessmen raised $500 for the monument, which was erected on Dedication Day, May 30, 1889, Kondrad said.
Powell, who had two nieces who died in the disaster, personally cared for the plot. After he died, Powell’s wife carried on the tradition. When she died, their daughter, Esther, continued caring for the gravesite.
“And here we are, 130 years later, caring for the lot and talking about the disaster and remembering them. And I think it’s important that they are remembered,” Kondrad said.
Association member Mary Beth Kondrad offered a prayer. And member Heather Ruseskas recited a poem inscribed at the base of the monument:
“Together they sleep on the sloping green Where the flowers bloom `neath the sunlight beam And the soft breezes sigh through the willow tree That nods o’er the grave in the sunny Shawnee.”
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