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Friday, February 1, 2013

the other battle of Bunker Hill

L: British Chemical,  seen from Mount Pelion
For years I've been fascinated by the story of the Trenton munitions plant explosion of 1918. I am astonished at how few people know of it. The event has been well recounted in a local history by John Melady entitled 'Explosion-Trenton Disaster' published in 1980 by Mika Publishing of Belleville.

The British Chemical Company comprised 255 acres, with 204 buildings, 5 plants manufacturing T.N.T., Sulphuric Acid, Nitric Acid, Gun Cotton and Smokeless Powder...a demonic presence tolerated so close to the town ('protected' by the shaley hillock called Bunker Hill) due to the exigencies of World War I.

Bunker Hill today - taken from Evergreen Cemetery, north of town
Al Purdy was born in 1918. He begins his autobiography 'In Search of the Beaufort Sea' with  his early experience of the event:
"The unborn child of Mrs. Eleanor Louisa Purdy rested comfortably inside his mother, in timeless calm and measureless peace - then all hell broke loose. People scurried back and forth frantically, the noise a little muffled by insulation. There was a kind of electric hum of tension pervading things outside. Loud noises; breaking glass; men shouting and women screaming." (RBS, page 11)

Purdy sets his autobiographical novel 'A Splinter in the Heart' a few years earlier in time, so that the plant and the explosion become characters in Patrick Cameron's coming of age story. Accompanying Patrick on one of his long-distance runs through old Trenton is like entering some of the archival photos I have been finding. Mirrors within mirrors - linking the historical Trenton with the town which appears in Purdy's poetry and prose, with the Trenton whose streets I wander today with my camera.

At dinner-time on Thanksgiving night, 1918,  fire began in the nitrator buildings of the British Chemical Company on Bunker Hill and throughout the night explosions occurred. Panic spread and an exodus from the town took place.  By morning it was all over and damage assessment began. The town looked like it had been bombed, according to Melady. The plant was a blackened empty wasteland. Remarkably, due in part to some local heroism, no lives were lost.

In 'Splinter in the Heart' Purdy's character Patrick is caught up in the events of the night, helping to evacuate elderly neighbours, struggling to reach his girl-friend's home north of the city. He takes you there, to the horror of the night:
"This was what they had feared, imagined, or even thought they had known. British Chemical would blow the town off the face of the earth. T.N.T., the three-headed monster, was the end of the world."
(A Splinter in the Heart, 1990)

(The archival photos above are thanks to Trenton Public Library and research librarian Robert Amesse)

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