T. A. Gillespie Company Shell Loading Plant explosion

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T. A. Gillespie Company Shell Loading Plant explosion
Evacuations caused by Morgan Depot Explosion.jpg
Residents evacuating after the explosions
Date October 4, 1918 (1918-10-04) to October 6, 1918 (1918-10-06)
Time 7:36 PM EDT
Location Sayreville, New Jersey
Coordinates 40°27′29″N 74°16′28″W / 40.458095°N 74.274326°W / 40.458095; -74.274326Coordinates: 40°27′29″N 74°16′28″W / 40.458095°N 74.274326°W / 40.458095; -74.274326
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
Deaths ~100
Non-fatal injuries 100+
Missing ~18
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 (40 km) around
Explosion site is located in Middlesex County, New Jersey
Explosion site
Explosion site
Location in Middlesex County, NJ

The T. A. Gillespie Company Shell Loading Plant explosion, sometimes called the Morgan Munitions Depot explosion or similar titles, began at 7:36 p.m. on October 4, 1918, at a World War I ammunition plant 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, totaling roughly 6 kilotons, killing roughly 100 people and injuring hundreds more. 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 1.2-mile (1.9 km) radius.[1][2]

T. A. Gillespie[edit]

T. A. Gillespie Company, founded by Thomas Andrew Gillespie (1852–1926),[3] was operating as a subsidiary of the American Shell Company, loading artillery 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.[4]


Damage to the plant was estimated to be US$18 million[5] and the US Government paid $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.[1] (The plant had 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. Some of the strongest individual blasts, from exploding railcars of ammunition, broke windows as far away as Manhattan and Asbury Park, more than 25 miles (40 km) distant.[6]

Man standing in a large crater from the explosions


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 individually uninsurable; but it is believed to be approximately 100 persons, with hundreds more injured.[1][5][6] The unidentified remains of 14 to 18 workers were buried in a mass grave on Ernston Road in what is now Old Bridge Township.[7] 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.[1][8][9]

Coast Guard involvement[edit]

Among many others involved in rescue operations were a number of US 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.[10][11]


The explosions scattered thousands of shells and components over a wide area, more than 1.2 miles (1.9 km) in radius. Nearly a century later, unexploded ordnance from the facility was still being found in the surrounding area. On June 7, 2007, ordnance was discovered at Samsel Upper Elementary School while workers were grading an area for a playground. Explosive Ordnance Disposal specialists from the US Army were called in to remove the material.[2] Previously, in 1994 and again in 1997, the discovery of shells near Sayreville's Dwight D. Eisenhower Elementary School spurred cleanup operations by the US Army Corps of Engineers, which collected and disposed of a combined total of 5,080 pieces of ordnance.[1][12]

Local historians Frank Yusko and Randall Gabrielan compiled detailed histories about the explosions for a 1994 television documentary and a 2012 book, respectively.[13][14]

The sports teams of Sayreville War Memorial High School are named the Sayreville Bombers, recalling the town's World War I ammunition plants and many World War II veterans.[15]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e "For 3 days, the ground shook in South Amboy". The Star-Ledger. October 4, 1998. 
  2. ^ a b "Old military explosive unearthed in schoolyard". The Suburban. July 6, 2007. Archived from the original on March 4, 2016. We find these things a couple of times a year in town. 
  3. ^ "The Ancestors of Christie MacDonald Gillespie". Baker Family Tree. August 25, 2013. 
  4. ^ "Gillespie Motor Co. – History". VintageMachinery.org. 
  5. ^ a b "Great Munition Plant Blown Up; 100 May Be Dead" (PDF). The New York Times. October 5, 1918. 
  6. ^ a b "Day of Explosions and Fire Finishes Shell Plant Ruin" (PDF). The New York Times. October 6, 1918. 
  7. ^ "Frederick J. Birkett III". Unofficial Arlington Cemetery Page.
  8. ^ "Morgan Munitions Blast Remembered 80 Years Later". Home News Tribune. October 4, 1998. Archived from the original on October 12, 1999. 
  9. ^ "Explosions devastated Morgan 90 years ago". The Suburban. October 16, 2008. Archived from the original on March 4, 2016. 
  10. ^ "Recipients Of The Navy Cross – The Gillespie Plant Explosion". HomeOfHeroes.com. Retrieved December 13, 2014. 
  11. ^ Stringer, Harry R., ed. (1921). The Navy Book of Distinguished Service. Washington, DC: Fassett Publishing Company. 
  12. ^ "75-year-old ordnance cleared from schoolyard". American City and Country. March 1, 1995. 
  13. ^ Yusko, Frank (1994). The Morgan Explosion of 1918. Milltown, NJ: Visionary Video Studios. 
  14. ^ Gabrielan, Randall (2012). Explosion at Morgan: The World War I Middlesex Munitions Disaster. Charleston, SC: The History Press. ISBN 978-1-60949-517-6. 
  15. ^ "Sayreville High School Arrests Divide a Town That Lived for Football". The New York Times. October 13, 2014. .

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