T. A. Gillespie Company Shell Loading Plant explosion
Residents of Morgan, NJ flee from the explosions to Perth Amboy
|Time||7:36 PM EDT|
|Date||October 4, 1918to October 6, 1918|
|Location||Sayreville, New Jersey|
|Also known as||Morgan Munitions Depot explosion|
|Cause||Worker error or (speculative) German sabotage|
|Participants||US Coast Guard, US Army|
|Outcome||Plant abandoned following Armistice|
|Property damage||Complete destruction of plant ($18 million in 1918); major damage to 300+ buildings in Sayreville, South Amboy, and Perth Amboy, NJ; broken windows for 25 miles around|
The T. A. Gillespie Company Shell Loading Plant explosion, sometimes called the Morgan Munitions Depot explosion, began at 7:36 p.m. on October 4, 1918 at a World War I ammunition plant operated by the T. A. Gillespie Company, in the Morgan area of Sayreville in Middlesex County, New Jersey. The initial explosion, generally believed to be accidental, triggered a fire and subsequent series of explosions that continued for three days. The facility, one of the largest in the world at the time, was destroyed along with more than 300 surrounding buildings, forcing the evacuation and reconstruction of Sayreville and neighboring South Amboy. Nearly a century later, explosive debris continues to surface regularly across a one-mile radius.
T. A. Gillespie
T. A. Gillespie Company, a subsidiary of the American Shell Company, was loading shells for overseas military action during World War I. After the war, the company was renamed Gillespie Motor Company in 1919, merged to form Gillespie-Eden Corporation in 1920, and disappeared sometime after 1923.
Damage to the plant was estimated to be US$18 million and the US Government paid US$300,000 in insurance to area residents, respectively equal to approximately $300 million and $5 million in 2012 dollars. According to a 1919 government report, the explosion destroyed enough ammunition to supply the Western Front for six months, estimated at 12 million pounds (6 kilotons) of high explosives. (The plant started production just three months earlier, and the war itself ended just one month after the explosion.) While hundreds of detonations were spread over three days, the totality of the event ranked as one of the largest man-made non-nuclear explosions in history. The strongest individual blasts, from exploding railcars of Gillespie ammunition, broke windows as far away as Manhattan and Asbury Park, more than 25 miles distant.
Government authorities declared martial law following the accident, forcing the evacuation of Sayreville, South Amboy, and Perth Amboy, whose combined populations totaled approximately 62,000. The death toll for the accident is unclear, since employment records were destroyed by the explosion and since ammunition workers were uninsurable; but it is assumed to be over 100 persons, with hundreds more injured. The unidentified remains of 14 to 18 workers were buried in a mass grave on Ernston Road in what is now Old Bridge Township. Evacuated and homeless persons were more susceptible to the severe influenza pandemic that struck a few weeks later, and the area's death toll from the outbreak was high.
Coast Guard involvement
Among many others involved in rescue operations were a number of United States Coast Guardsmen stationed across the Raritan River in Perth Amboy. Twelve received Navy Crosses for their heroic actions in the aftermath of the explosion, and two died in the effort. The award citations indicate that during the conflagration, they risked death when they relocated a train loaded with TNT that was threatened by the fire. One Navy Cross recipient was Joseph Stika, who later became a Vice Admiral.
The explosions scattered thousands of shells and components over a wide area, more than a mile in radius. As late as 2007, unexploded ordnance from the facility was still being found in the surrounding area. On June 7, 2007, ordnance was found at Samsel Upper Elementary School while workers were grading an area for a playground. Explosive Ordnance Disposal experts from the US Army were called in to remove the material. Previously, in 1994 and again in 1997, the discovery of shells near Sayreville's Dwight D. Eisenhower Elementary School spurred cleanup operations by the United States Army Corps of Engineers, which collected and disposed of a combined total of 5,080 pieces of ordnance.
- "For 3 days, the ground shook in South Amboy". The Star-Ledger. October 4, 1998.
- "Old military explosive unearthed in schoolyard". The Suburban. July 6, 2007.
We find these things a couple of times a year in town.
- "Gillespie Motor Co. – History". VintageMachinery.org.
- "Great Munition Plant Blown Up; 100 May Be Dead". The New York Times. October 5, 1918.
- "Day of Explosions and Fire Finishes Shell Plant Ruin". The New York Times. October 6, 1918.
- Unofficial Arlington Cemetery page. Frederick J. Birkett III.
- "Morgan Munitions Blast Remembered 80 Years Later". Home News Tribune. October 4, 1998.
- "Explosions devastated Morgan 90 years ago". The Suburban. October 16, 2008.
- "Recipients Of The Navy Cross – The Gillespie Plant Explosion". HomeOfHeroes.com. Retrieved December 13, 2014.
- "75-year-old ordnance cleared from schoolyard". American City and Country. March 1, 1995.
- Yusko, Frank (1994). The Morgan Explosion of 1918. Milltown, NJ: Visionary Video Studios.
- Gabrielan, Randall (2012). Explosion at Morgan: The World War I Middlesex Munitions Disaster. Charleston, SC: The History Press. ISBN 978-1-60949-517-6.
- "Sayreville War Memorial High School". Retrieved October 13, 2014.
- Archival photos of victims and damaged locations (subscription required)
- Rediscovering the Ruins of a Catastrophic WWI Explosion Everyone Forgot
- Ernst Memorial Cemetery, location of the tomb of the unknown dead