Wabash Valley native, Pulitzer Prize winner writes song on
Fontanet powder mill explosion
By Mark Bennett, The Tribune-Star | 10/10/2007
FONTANET David Hanners sings the “god-awful” saga of “Fontanet” through the eyes of a survivor of the powerful, deadly explosion at the duPont Powder Mill in 1907.
But, in a way, his song’s penultimate verse reveals a bit of Hanners’ own experiences a century later.
Those words explain why Hanners wanted to write and record a folk tune about a disaster at a black powder factory that killed 27 people over a horrid 90-minute span on the morning of Oct. 15, 1907. He’s a storyteller, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who also writes and performs music around Minneapolis, where he now lives and works.
His song “Fontanet” is essentially “newswriting with a rhyme.” Its narrator is a fictional mill employee who lived through four blasts that killed dozens, injured 400 and forever quieted a once-bustling small town. In its next-to-last verse, that narrator says:
“Now, sir, I ain’t no coward, seen my share of gore; was wounded at San Juan in the war of ’98; but I never seen no carnage like I seen there on that morning; when 3,000 tons of powder blew Fontanet away.”
The man who penned those lyrics won a Pulitzer in 1989 for an inside look at a plane crash investigation. He’s written about wrongly accused death-row inmates in Texas, civil rights violations, and a man beaten to death by police. So, like the character in his song, Hanners had seen his share of gore.
Then last year, Hanners stumbled upon a story he’d never heard before. The 52-year-old Casey, Ill., native had come back to the Wabash Valley to visit his father and stepmother, stopped in a Terre Haute bookstore and spotted a book called “Terre Haute and Vigo County in Vintage Postcards” by Dorothy W. Jerse and John R. Becker III. Its ninth chapter, titled “Disasters,” piqued Hanners’ interest, “being a journalist.” The paragraphs describing the events of Oct. 15, 1907, in Fontanet captivated Hanners.
“I found the whole story fascinating,” he said by telephone from Minnesota last week. “It’s almost a comment on our current state of affairs, with the lack of regulations in industry.” The tale “has a timeliness, a universality to it that lends itself to a good folk song.”
Like a reporter, Hanners did some research, reading historical accounts of the duPont mill disaster, which made headlines in The New York Times. Unlike a reporter, though, Hanners wrote and recorded a song that delivers a pointed jab at the mill’s wealthy owner, Alfred I. duPont.
“One of the freeing aspects is that in journalism, you have to be as objective as you can,” Hanners explained, “and in songwriting, you don’t.”
The Fontanet calamity needs little embellishment. “It’s kind of dramatic when you have 3,000 tons of powder blowing up,” Hanners said.
In the days and months leading up to that moment, A.B. Monahan superintendent of the Laflin & Rand Powder Mill, owned by E.I. duPont de Nemours and Co., a dynasty in the explosives industry told family, friends and even a reporter that he feared the plant was ripe for a catastrophe. “I can’t keep that mill on the ground, and I am going to resign,” they later recalled him saying. Monahan even took out a life insurance policy. On Oct. 14, 1907, he informed buddies at a gathering in the Terre Haute House that he was arranging a new job.
Monahan never got that chance. At 9:08 a.m. the next day, a thundering explosion from the mill’s glazing room obliterated the main office, where Monahan was meeting with T.T. Kellum, a representative from duPont’s offices in Wilmington, Del. Both men perished. That same blast uprooted a large tree and dropped it on the superintendent’s nearby living quarters, killing Monahan’s wife and niece.
Rumors of foul play swirled. But the real cause of the initial explosion turned out to be an overheated shaft that had ignited the black powder in the glazing room, aggravated by dry, hot weather.
Thirty minutes later, just as the town and its neighboring communities began to respond to the first explosion, a second more lethal and powerful blast erupted from the mill’s press room. Two more explosions followed. The fourth involved 31,000 kegs of dynamite in the magazine section of the mill. Altogether, more than 3,000 tons of black powder exploded. In an hour and a half, Fontanet a mining town of 1,500 people had been reduced to smoldering rubble.
The explosions registered on seismic monitors more than 200 miles away, and people in Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Seymour felt the shock waves. Windows shattered in Terre Haute and nearby communities. A jagged, blood-spattered board blew through the window of a couple’s home in Montezuma, 23 miles away. In Fontanet, the jolts destroyed two churches, two school buildings, a depot, large warehouses, 500 homes, every business and a train servicing the town. The damages, in 1907 prices, was estimated at $350,000.
The human toll was more staggering. Twenty-two of the 53 mill employees working that day perished, along with five other people. A man seen guiding a team of mules near the site of the first blast was never found. The mules were unharmed.
Eighteen-year-old Audrey Ousley Simkins had come to Fontanet from Ohio to visit her sisters. The explosions ripped apart Simkins’ sister’s house and left Simkins, her sisters and her brother-in-law trapped under rubble. “It was a terrible noise,” Simkins recalled in a 1989 Tribune-Star interview, when she was 100 years old. “The homes all went to pieces. It was like a real loud thunder.”
She managed to free herself, and tried, in vain, to pull out her sisters. “I could see one of my sisters. The other one, I could only hear,” she said.
Both sisters and her brother-in-law died.
Some people had their clothes blown off their bodies. A day later, four Fontanet schoolchildren were found wandering through Ehrmandale, four miles away, with no idea how they got there. With the cries of the injured and smoke from fires filling the air, then-Gov. Frank Hanly called in the National Guard.
Ironically, on Oct. 15, mill owner Alfred I. duPont had remarried that day after a bitter, controversial divorce from his first wife. DuPont interrupted his honeymoon and brought his new wife, Alicia, to Fontanet to survey the devastation. He vowed to pay for the victims’ funeral expenses, and pledged to rebuild Fontanet and its mill, which employed 153 people. But the scared townsfolk, wary of an explosives plant’s volatility, urged duPont not to reconstruct the mill. Most damaged structures were indeed rebuilt all except the mill, whose site duPont left vacant, abiding by the citizens’ wishes.
The small town’s population rapidly declined after the disaster, and subsequent closings of local coal mines.
“If the duPonts had rebuilt here, this town wouldn’t be the same now,” said historian Joe Koch, who documented the disaster in his 2004 book “Nevins Township History.”
Koch, 79, grew up a few miles north of Fontanet. His grandparents, George and Matilda Koch, lived in the first house east of the mill. The explosion “blew over the top of them,” he said, sparing their lives.
Koch heard stories about the explosions from his grandparents, and those passed-down memories are almost all that is left of that era. “It’s been a hundred years,” he pointed out. As the centennial anniversary of the pivotal moment in Fontanet history arrives Monday, only a couple hundred people still live in the town. The blast site is unmarked and now wooded, private property, Koch explained.
Still, that moment is clearly etched in Vigo County history, said historian Mike McCormick. The powder mill explosion’s death toll exceeded other memorable disasters such as a Sanford train explosion, also in 1907 on Jan. 19 (15 people died), the Viking mine mishap on March 2, 1961 (22 lives lost), and the Home Packing Co. gas explosion, Jan. 2, 1963 (16 died). Only a train collision near Haythorne Avenue in Terre Haute, which killed 29 Army Air Corps soldiers on Sept. 14, 1944, caused a greater loss of life.
Coffeehouse and club crowds around Minneapolis respond favorably to “Fontanet” when Hanners sings that story. “The song kind of resonates with people,” he said. It also helps keep the lessons and memories alive, even a century later.
Folk music, Hanners said, “is a way of passing along” the story.
By David Hanners
I lived in Fontanet in the state of Indiana,
Got me a job at the duPont Powder Mill,
Said a prayer each morning when I walked through the gate,
’Cause whatever’s gonna happen is God’s will.
Vigo County’s blessed with coal, they mine it night and day,
Veins of black flow through every dale and hill,
But the earth don’t give it up; gotta blast it out with powder,
The powder that we make at the duPont Powder Mill.
The fall of 1907 had been a dry one,
Mr. Monahan, who runs this mill, fears that it ain’t safe,
He said, “Boys, this plant knows a thousand ways to kill you,
So do your jobs right and don’t make no mistake.”
They think it all started with an overheated shaft,
Turnin’ some machine down in the glazing room,
The air was filled with dust, it was even in our clothes,
So one spark is all it took to bring about our doom.
Four explosions ripped Fontanet; they blew this town apart,
Shattered glass in Terre Haute 10 miles away,
Twenty-seven souls were left dead or dying,
And many more maimed on that god-awful day.
Now, sir, I ain’t no coward, seen my share of gore,
Was wounded at San Juan in the War of ’98,
But I never seen no carnage like I seen there on that morning,
When 3,000 tons of powder blew Fontanet away.
DuPont can fill the craters, he can rebuild the houses,
He can plant new trees to replace the ones that fell,
But if he wants to rebuild that cursed powder mill,
DuPont can take his money and he can go to hell.
Yes, duPont can take his money and he can go to hell.
Copyright 2007, (reprinted with permission)