1924 Nixon Nitration Works disaster
Coordinates: The 1924 Nixon Nitration Works disaster was an explosion and fire that claimed many lives and destroyed several square miles of New Jersey factories. It began on Saturday morning, March 1, 1924, when an explosion destroyed a building in Nixon, New Jersey (an area within present-day Edison, New Jersey) used for processing ammonium nitrate. The 11:15 a.m. explosion touched off fires in surrounding buildings in the Nixon Nitration Works that contained other highly flammable materials. The disaster killed twenty persons, destroyed forty buildings, and demolished the “tiny industrial town of Nixon, New Jersey.”
The Nixon Nitration Works, which included a number of plants, covered about 12 square miles (3,100 ha) on the Raritan River, near New Brunswick, in what was then officially known as Raritan Township (later changed to Edison) and unofficially known as Nixon, New Jersey. It was originally created by naval architect and industrialist Lewis Nixon in 1915, upon the outbreak of World War I, to supply some of the warring nations of Europe with gunpowder and other war materials. When the war ended its facilities were put to broader uses, involving other explosive materials.
The company manufactured cellulose nitrate (also known as pyroxylin-plastic), the first plastic. Because of its use of nitrate, the material is highly flammable. At the works, cellulose nitrate was maintained in 50-by-20-inch (127 by 51 cm) sheets that had been piled in the surrounding buildings.
Within the Works, Nixon leased to the Ammonite Company a storage house located 300 feet (91 m) from its buildings. Ammonite was using the facility to salvage the contents of artillery shells for use as agricultural fertilizer. That salvage occurred after trinitrotoluene (better known as TNT) was extracted from the shells at the nearby Raritan Arsenal by Columbia Storage Company, owned by aeronautic pioneer Charles A. Levine. The Ammonite building reportedly contained 1 million US gallons (3,800 m3) of ammonium nitrate in storage and fifteen tank cars, each holding 90,000 US gallons (340,000 L) of ammonium nitrate in the process of crystallization.
The initial explosion
When the Ammonite building exploded, windows for a mile around the scene were broken inward and in many instances doors were blown from their hinges. The blast shook Staten Island, where business buildings in the Stapleton and St. George neighborhoods rocked, windows rattled, and doors were slammed. It was felt in lower New York City, Brooklyn, and as far away as Mineola, New York, fifty miles away.
The disaster spreads
In the other buildings on the site, the flaming debris from the explosion of the Ammonite plant soon set the cellulose nitrate sheets on fire, causing the material to act as a huge blow-torch of blue flames, feeding an even greater conflagration. Fires began to consume other buildings as well, including the offices of the Nitration Works.
Six hours after the explosion, flames were still burning over an area of one square mile. Then, an even greater disaster was avoided. As darkness fell, the winds shifted suddenly and began fanning the flames toward freight cars on a siding and toward the Raritan Arsenal (located across a fence from the site). In the arsenal, 500,000 high-explosive shells were stored. Through the efforts of exhausted firefighters, the fire did not reach the arsenal. Although four of the arsenal’s high explosive magazines had been crushed by the explosion and the roofs of two others were blown in, the magazines did not explode.
The human toll
Two days after the explosion, newspapers reported that eighteen persons were killed, two were missing (and presumed killed), and fifteen others remained hospitalized. The blast injured one hundred persons. The dead included the wife and three children of an employee of the plant who lived one hundred yards from the scene, a stenographer working at the plant, and thirteen workmen who were repairing the roof of the building where the blast occurred.
Prosecutor John E. Toolan of Middlesex County, New Jersey began an inquiry two days after the blast. Among those summoned to appear for the inquiry were Lewis Nixon, his son Stanhope Wood Nixon, and R. Norris Shreve, then president of the Ammonite Co. Secretary of War John W. Weeks also ordered an inquiry, for the more limited purpose of determining whether the Raritan Arsenal was in any way responsible for the explosion.
Some theorized that the blast was triggered by small quantities of TNT that remained in the ammonium nitrate at the Ammonite facility after the ammonium nitrate was removed from the shells. Lewis Nixon embraced this explanation. Ammonite disputed this theory, asserting that the average content of TNT in the salvaged ammonium nitrate was only two-tenths of one percent. However, under questioning, Shreve acknowledged that this would have caused 120 pounds (54 kg) of TNT filtered from ammonium nitrate to flow every day into a small stream on the site, and that there might have been "several percent" of TNT in tanks of ammonium nitrate remaining at the site. Major A.S. Casand, commander of the arsenal, also disagreed that residual TNT was to blame, and believed that the explosion was due to conditions in the plant.
One month after the disaster, Ammonite sued Nixon Nitration Works for $400,000 in damages, alleging that the explosion was due to the Nixon company’s carelessness. In 1928, a federal judge dismissed the claims and counterclaims between Ammonite and Nixon Nitration Works, leaving Columbia Salvage Company as the only defendant in the suit.
In April 1924, Ammonite Corporation was indicted on fifteen counts of involuntary manslaughter and initially pled not guilty. The following year Ammonite pled guilty to charges arising from the explosion and was fined a total of $9,000, reflecting a $600 fine for each of 15 employees killed in the blast.
In May 1924, Nixon Nitration Works was ordered to pay $12,000 to the widow of a victim who worked for that company.
Ammonite dissolved in 1926, for reasons attributed to the explosion. Ammonite owner R. Norris Shreve, already a renowned chemical and industrial engineer, later joined the faculty at Purdue University, where he became a well-respected scholar, author, and teacher. A residence hall at Purdue is named in honor of Mr. and Mrs. Shreve.
Charles A. Levine earned a fortune as a result of his companies' contracts with the federal government to salvage shells. In 1927, he financed an effort to become the first to fly from New York to Paris, only to have Charles A. Lindbergh reach Paris first while Levine's plane was grounded by a restraining order obtained by the navigator he had employed. Levine dissolved the injunction, freed the plane, and became the first transcontinental air passenger, reaching Germany from New York in a flight two weeks following Lindbergh's. Meanwhile, the federal government sued Levine's companies, claiming overcharges for their salvage work. Many lawsuits and prosecutions of Levine and his companies followed, including prosecutions for counterfeiting French coins, conspiring to smuggle Tungsten powder from Canada, and smuggling an alien refugee from a German concentration camp into the United States from Mexico.
The Nixon Nitration Works rose again on the site, and returned to the business of cellulose nitrate manufacturing. Lewis Nixon died on September 23, 1940. His son Stanhope Nixon, who assumed control of the business, had few of his father’s qualities, and many vices. After World War II, the plastics industry evolved from nitrate-based products to acetate-based products, and the company failed to make the transition. In 1951, as the company downsized, it gave 48 acres (19 ha) of land, and a dam, to New Brunswick. The site of the Works is now a part of Middlesex County College and Raritan Center Industrial Park.
In 1954, the citizens of Middlesex County's Raritan Township renamed their community by referendum. The name Edison was chosen over Nixon. However, the Nixon name is still used by the local post office and postal district.
Popular culture references
The HBO mini-series Band of Brothers makes reference to the company's being owned by Captain Nixon's parents, and (in episode 10) the captain's offer of a potential post-World-War-II job opportunity in the company to Major Winters.
- "Many are Killed in Explosion: Staten Island is Rocked by Terrific Blast,” The Bee (Danville, Virginia), 1924-03-01, p. 1
- "Explosion Kills 30, Rocks New Jersey: Ammonia Plant of the Nixon Nitrate Works Blows up With Roar That Shakes Countryside for 25 Miles; Fire Follows,” Middletown Daily Herald, 1924-03-02, p. 1.
- ’Begin Probe of Explosion: Inquiry into Cause of Blast Which Killed 18 and Destroyed 40 Buildings Begins,” Lowell Sun, 1924-03-03, at 19.
- “Blast Levels a Town: TNT, Being Changed to Fertilizer, Blows Up, Killing 18,” Weekly Kansas City Star, 1924-03-05, at 2.
- "Lewis Nixon Dies; Naval Designer, 79. Oregon, Massachusetts and Indiana Were Built From Plans He Provided. Once Head of Tammany. Successor to Richard Croker. Held Important Positions in This State and City". The New York Times. September 24, 1940. Retrieved 2010-03-22. "Lewis Nixon, head of the Nixon Nitration Company and the Raritan Sand Company at Nixon, N.J., a pioneer in naval architecture with the advent of steel construction and former leader of Tammany Hall, died here this afternoon in Monmouth Memorial Hospital, which he..."
- "Rushing Nixon's Plant". The New York Times. 1915-05-05.
- “Lewis Nixon Says Failure to Remove TNT from Shells Probably Caused the Blast,” New York Times, 1924-03-02.
- "Fertilizer Plant Blows Up," New York Times, 1924-03-02.
- Jack Carberry, “Survivors tell Graphic Stories of Horror Blast,” Ogden Standard-Examiner, 1924-03-02 at 3.
- ”Investigate Cause Costly Explosion at Nitrate Plant,” Olean Times, 1924-03-03, at 1.
- "Inquiry Begins Of Blast Where 18 Were Killed". Associated Press in the Miami News-Metropolis. March 3, 1924. Retrieved 2010-03-22. "An inquiry into the cause of the ... he believed the explosion was due to conditions in the ammonia plant rather than to any possible failure to separate TNT at the arsenal from the ammonium nitrate, which eventually sent in tanks to the fertilizer factory of the ammonite company. Until the ruins cool, which may take a number of ..."
- “Explosion Inquiry Ordered by Weeks,” New York Times, 1924-03-06.
- “Nitrate held TNT, says Plant Head,” New York Times, 1924-03-04.
- Ammonite Factory Put TNT in Stream," New York Times, 1924-03-07.
- "Jersey Protests Explosive Plant. Governor Silzer Confers With Middlesex Officials on Nixon Disaster". New York Times. March 5, 1924. Retrieved 2010-03-22. "Spurred by demands of townships of Middlesex County for the elimination from that county of plants containing explosives, Assistant Prosecutor John E. Toolan went yesterday to Trenton and conferred with Governor Silzer about the explosion last Saturday at Nixon. N.J., in which at least eighteen persons were killed."
- "Talk of Removing Raritan Explosives", The New York Times, 1924-03-15.
- ”Suing for $400,000: Damages sought as a result of explosion at Ammonite Plant,” Kokomo Tribune, 1924-04-04, at 25.
- 2 "Blast Suits Dismissed". The New York Times, 1928-06-07.
- "Ammonite Co. Pleads Not Guilty," The New York Times, 1924-04-26.
- “Company Fined $9,000 for Explosion Deaths,” The New York Times, 1925-03-28.
- “$12,000 Explosion Award: Nixon Nitration Works Must Pay Woman Whose Husband Was Killed,” The New York Times, 1924-05-13.
- N.A. Peppas and R.S. Harland, “Unit Processes Against Unit Operations: The Educational Fights of the Thirties,” reprinted in Nicholas A. Peppas, “One Hundred Years of Chemical Engineering,” p. 128 (1989) ISBN 0-7923-0145-5.
- Obituary, "Charles A. Levine, 94, Is Dead; First Trans-Atlantic Air Passenger," New York Times, 1991-12-18.
- "Levine to Take Up Government Claim," New York Times, 1927-10-27.
- "Levine Out on Bail Furnished by Wife," New York Times, 1930-10-26.
- “Veteran Shipbuilder Dies,” Titusville Herald, 1940-09-24, at p. 1.
- Larry Alexander, “Biggest Brother: The Life of Major Dick Winters, The Man who Led the Band of Brothers,” p. 223 (2005) ISBN 0-451-21839-6.
- Frank Emerson Andrews, “Corporate Giving,” p. 192 (1993) ISBN 1-56000-022-8.