Monday, September 5, 2011

Stepping to the Side: A Dynamite Primer

Stepping to the Side: A Dynamite Primer
Wally Lee Parker

— previously published in —
 Reports to the Clayton/Deer Park Historical Society — 2005
Deer Park Tribune — September 28, 2005
Nostalgia Magazine — January, 2009
© Clayton/Deer Park Historical Society — 2005
(used by permission)

For those unfamiliar with the area, the Little Spokane River drainage basin is a fair size valley north of the city of Spokane.  The farmlands on the basin floor were deposited when a series of glacial floods backwashed into the valley and the suspended silts, sands, gravels, and ice borne erratics settled from the rushing water as it slowed.  Those deposits were augmented by loess blown in by the massive dust storms rising during times of glacial drought — the same storms that left behind the incredibly rich soils of southeastern Washington’s famous Palouse.  Particularly benefiting from that accumulated glacial dust, Williams Valley is one of a north/south trending set of rural communities nestle in the shadows of the Five Sisters – the mountains rising to form the western wall of the Little Spokane basin.  And the small town of Deer Park is the dominant incorporated community within the northern reach of this larger, south draining valley.

               Looking over the green and quiet farms of Williams Valley in the nineteen fifties, most city people wouldn’t believe anything more dangerous than an occasional ornery farmer lurked there.  But on closer inspection you’d find mowing machines, thrashing machines and hay rakes, all with churning knives and spikes. You’d find gears with chewing teeth, and chains with snapping blades.  There would be top-heavy tractors, with all kinds of exposed belts, levers, and hydraulic cylinders.  Odd mixtures of moisture and electricity, from milking machines to irrigation pumps.  Poisonous powders and granules with similar root names — pesticide, fungicide, herbicide, insecticide — most as yet undiscovered carcinogenic agents.  You’d find flammable fluids in a multitude of unmarked containers.  And you might even find an ancient box of dynamite or two.
               Although such lethal tools surrounded farm kids, the majority of us survived.  One reason, besides luck, was that we were taught to handle these things.  Curiosity satisfied, the tools quickly passed from being scary novelties to being just more grungy work.
               I was about eleven or twelve when my dad, Owen Lee Parker, was getting ready to remove some stubborn stumps and figured it was time I learned how to work with dynamite.

Owen Lee Parker

               There was part of an old box in the barn.  But Dad figured the stock on hand was just too old, since the sticks had swollen to the point that the wrappers had peeled open and the contents crumbled out.  Then too, there was that white, mildew-like powder covering everything.
               So off we went to Deer Park, four miles to the east.
               There may have been something to sign.  Dad was always going on about the growing clutter of regulations.  “It’s getting as bad as Russia,” he would say.  I don’t know what the regulations were back then.  But what I do remember was him walking out of Deer Park’s Weber’s Hardware with a box of dynamite — about fifty pounds I think — dropping it in the back of the old half-ton, and me, with eyes wide, watching the box thump around the Chevy’s bed as we drove home over the sandy washboard of Bittrick-Antler Road.
               Once home, Dad fired up the old Ford tractor.  He threw the dynamite on the hay trailer, along with a dynamite auger and a wooden box with some special tools, and we went bouncing across the fields and through the woods to the back of the farm.
               Clearing land was endless work.  Attack the trees with chainsaw and axe.  Hire Bob Koehler and his crawler tractor to push the stumps and slash into windrows for burning.  For those stumps too big for Bob’s crawler, out came the dynamite.
               It was hard enough with all these tools.  Clearing land before they came into use — clearing land with mule teams in harness, with block and tackle, with a hand full of shovel handle or axe — now that must have been absolute misery!
               Somewhere in the reading room at Spokane’s Museum of Arts and Culture is a particular pioneer recollection.  Just a few dozen pages of manuscript stapled between colored construction paper covers.  All I can remember of the document’s title is the word ‘Prairie’ — as in Half Moon or Wild Rose.  Impressed from typewriter cut stencils, the pages of this recollection mentioned a method of removing stumps employed by the area’s pioneers.
               They would pile slash over the stump and set it afire.  When the blaze had burned well into the wood, they smothered the fire beneath shovels of dirt.  They would mound the dirt up over the stump to cut the wood and fire away from air.  And there, under the earth, the embers would slowly gnaw away the remains of the stump — eating its way along the roots — till only ash was left.
               One wonders how many such fires escaped into the standing timber.  Surely not that many, since most of the timber once standing in the stretch between Mount Spokane in the east and the Five Sisters in the west was fed into lumber mills, not fires.
               With dynamite, it was best to blast in the wetness of spring.  If the ground wasn’t damp, there was always a chance the explosion would just blow the dirt away, leaving the stump firmly anchored by its roots.  The heavier the surrounding earth, the more likely everything would rise in mass.
               While Dad used the auger to angle a two inch diameter hole a good six or so feet under the stumps, he set me to crimping blasting caps to thirty second lengths of fuse.
               The cap was a small, thin wall metal cylinder — maybe an inch and a half long and a quarter inch in diameter — with one open end.  At the bottom of the closed end was a small charge of pyrotechnic powder.  Slide the fuse down the open end, then crimp the metal down tight around it.  In effect, you were making a firecracker.  When the fire carried in by the fuse ignited the pyrotechnic charge, the trapped combustion gasses had nowhere to go, so the entire cap blew apart.  The shock wave from that explosion was what detonated the dynamite.
               Although pyrotechnic caps weren’t particularly sensitive to proper crimping, years of warnings about blasting caps made me turn my head every time the crimping tool crushed down on cap and fuse.  I guess I figured it was better to lose an ear than an eye.
               I would grit my teeth as Dad used his pocket knife to cut into the side of an inch and a quarter thick by eight inch long stick of dynamite, push the fused cap into the cut, then bind stick, cap, and fuse with a couple of spirals of black friction tape.
               Besides the fused stick, I can’t recall how many more sticks, on average, went under any given stump, though six to ten sounds about right.
               With only the fuse exposed, Dad would tamp the auger hole full of dirt and send me back a couple of hundred feet to wait in the tree-line.  Then he’d light the fuse and come running.
               The explosion was something felt more than heard.  It came through you.  A hard thump in the chest.  And then a fountain of dirt and wood shot skyward.
               Out of the top of that fountain would fly black chunks of stump, some weighing a couple of hundred pounds.  As they sprayed in every direction, Dad would yell, “Heads up!  Heads up!  You can’t see ‘em coming if you’re watching the ground.”  Then, “If a chunk is coming at you, move left or right.  It’s easy to step out of the way, but hard to outrun.”
               As a reminder of how powerful those waxy red sticks were, for long seconds after the blast, unseen things rattled down into the trees behind us.
               The explosive ingredient in dynamite is nitroglycerin.  First produced in 1846, this colorless, oily liquid is still one of the most powerful chemical explosives known.  When detonated, the liquid almost instantaneously turns into a gas, expanding to what, at normal atmospheric pressure, would be twelve hundred times its original volume.  In the liquid to gas conversion process, the chemical flashes to nine thousand degrees Fahrenheit, cooling as it expands.  The gas pressure at conversion is equivalent to twenty thousand atmospheres, with the initial shock wave moving outward at seventeen thousand miles an hour.
               And all that is required to begin this liquid to gas conversion is a physical shock — sometimes not even that.
               In 1867, Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel discovered that this hypersensitivity to shock could be reduced by mixing three parts nitroglycerin with one part diatomaceous earth, and a dash of sodium carbonate.  Formed into sticks and wrapped in waxed paper, this became dynamite.  Later on, other binders besides diatomaceous earth were used — wood pulp for example.
               Two major problems are associated with dynamite.  First, as the sticks age, they tend to weep pure nitro — the chemical tends to migrate out of the binder and form droplets on the surface of the waxed paper.  Secondly, with prolonged handling the chemical can move through the user’s skin and act as a vasodilator, inducing headaches, heart arrhythmias, or worse.
               John Weber, whose family owned Deer Park’s Weber’s Hardware, said, “What we sold was called 40 percent stumping powder.  It wasn’t as high grade an explosive as pure dynamite.  And I don’t believe we sold it out of the store.  In fact, I don’t think we kept any in town.  We kept a few boxes in various places outside of town — on farms and such.  So, while I wouldn’t say your dad didn’t pick a box up at the store, it would seem unlikely.”
               “If someone ordered quite a few cases, we’d have those delivered to them directly out of Spokane.  Otherwise we’d pick a case from our stock and deliver it ourselves.”
               “Another thing, over winter we didn’t want any extra stock on hand.  If that stuff froze, the nitro would weep out of the sticks.  And that wasn’t good.”
               Area resident and longtime short-hall truck drive Fay Reilly remembers it a different way.  “I delivered to Weber’s Hardware for many years, and we unloaded dynamite right along with the paint, nails, and other items.
               “In early spring the store’s owner, Gene Weber, would begin taking pre-orders for dynamite.  When the railroad car carrying those orders arrived, he or one of his employees would call the customers and ask them to come and take delivery of their dynamite at the railroad siding in Deer Park … directly off the car.
               “At other times of the year, Oriard Powder Company would deliver cases of dynamite to our Spokane freight dock, and that evening I’d haul it out to Weber’s in my truck.  We’d let the truck sit on the street overnight, and unload into the store the next morning.
               “When I was still in school I recall my dad picking dynamite up at Weber’s store.  They may have had storage sites outside of town, but I can’t recall going anywhere except the store itself.”
               DuPont manufactured ‘Special Gelatin’ in strengths from twenty to eighty percent.  This was dynamite with a portion of nitroglycerin replaced by ammonium nitrate.  These sticks had a somewhat lower detonation velocity, but were also less sensitive to shock and friction.  ‘Stumping powder’ would be a good name for this farmer friendly form of dynamite.
               All this aside, working with the chemical was both fascinating and scary.
               Bill Sebright, retired Deer Park School District teacher and current president of the Clayton/Deer Park Historical Society, recalls, “My dad unfolded the paper on one end of the dynamite.  He pushed a pointed stick into the explosive, making a hole for the cap.  Then he folded the paper back down around the fuse, pushing it tight with the butt of his pocket knife.”

Chester "Red" Sebright

               “He’d prepare a row of stumps — long fuse in the first of them, then progressively shorter down the line.  Then he’d run from stump to stump, starting with the longest fuse, and set them all off.
               “Dad would always make a spitter — that was a fuse the same length as the first and longest actual fuse, with a notch cut every inch so sparks would spit from the fuse as it burned.  He’d light his spitter at the same time he set fire to the longest fuse. Then he’d carry the spitter with him as he ran from stump to stump, just to make sure he was out of range before the explosions began.
               “Dad never kept dynamite around the farm.  He’d put any extra sticks under the last stump he intended to blow — just to get rid of it.  But he did keep the extra caps in a tin placed high on a shelf in the granary.  We all knew they were there, but never messed with them.”
               There were rumors about recreational uses for dynamite.  Some told of depth-charging catfish or sending outhouses flying over the county line.  But Larry Lewis assured us that a story told about his dad, Hays Lewis, was true.
               “Every Fourth of July,” Larry said, “at about ten o’clock in the evening, Dad would take two sticks of fused dynamite and walk down the county road near our Big Foot Valley home.  That double boom the neighbors heard was his celebration of Independence Day.”
               Even then, safety was always an issue.
               Harold Klawunder, now in his mid-nineties, recollects, “My dad was a powder monkey in the clay pits at the old Clayton brick plant.  He’d set dynamite charges to loosen the clay for digging.  He’d blast stumps on our farm too — setting off four or five at a time.  I never cared to mess with the stuff myself.
               “Now Ben Renner — used to be brick plant superintendent — I heard tell his dad was killed by dynamite.”
               Ben Renner’s daughter, Karen Meyer of the Loon Lake Historical Society, sent a clipping from the June 18, 1936, issue of the Deer Park Union, describing her grandfather’s accident.
               The surprisingly graphic article states that Michael Renner, working on his farm about five miles north of Deer Park, was killed instantly when fifteen sticks of dynamite he was preparing to place under a stump exploded.  Michael’s son Gustave was working about one hundred feet away.  When he reached his father, he found “his hands, feet, and head badly torn and mutilated, and his clothing afire”.
               The article goes on to explain how Mister Renner, a former hard-rock miner, had a long history of working with explosives, and was known to be extremely careful.  The reason for the explosion was never determined.
               A while after my own stump blasting experience, Dad decided to throw away the box of dynamite that had been moldering in the barn — a decision based on the growing number of city raised grandkids prowling over the farm.  He threw what was left on the hay trailer and drove to a slash windrow on the back acreage.  There, he tossed the box in to burn.
               Dad was telling a neighbor about getting rid of that last box.  The neighbor said, “You know Owen, I can see how you would figure dynamite in that condition had lost its punch.  But the fact is, that whitish mold looking stuff was the nitroglycerin moving out of solution.  If old dynamite is in the mood, it’ll explode at the slightest jar — or maybe just a change in temperature.  It’ll burn fine, that’s no problem.  But you and your old Ford tractor could have easily ended up being scattered all around the edges of your farm.”
               Dad just sat quiet for a bit, chewing on his pipe.

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