Just before 8:00 p.m. on October 24th, 1887, a massive explosion shook the city of Ironton. A battery of six boilers at the Lawrence Rolling Mill blew up, sending machinery and debris into Storms Creek and west Ironton. Each boiler was 28 feet long and 42 inches in diameter. They were positioned not far from the railroad tracks, which ended up warped and twisted. Interestingly, men who were reportedly standing very close to the boilers were covered in thick mud and dust but were otherwise unharmed. Most of the large fragments were blown beyond the mill, away from the workers. A piece of one of the boilers crashed through the roof of the residence of John Abrams, narrowly missing his wife and children. A section of the boiler plate was found as far away as Eighth Street.
Now the location of the Ironton Little League fields and wastewater treatment plant, the mill began operating in 1854 and employed nearly 200 men. The Ironton Register newspaper reported the instant deaths of Michael Dyer, father of six children; Michael’s cousin, James Dyer, who was only 35 years old; and Thomas Davis, a veteran mill worker who had previously labored at the Ironton Rolling Mill, who left behind five children.
Fireman’s helper Peter Clay suffered a crushed arm and severe burns, and passed away twenty-six hours later, leaving behind a wife and two young children. The newspaper reported that, “the shock of the explosion was felt in almost every quarter of town.” Moments after the blast, families of the workmen rushed to the mill to search the ruins for their loved ones. A laborer near the furnace saw the roof come off the building just before he heard the outburst, and nearby stacks of iron were described as being tangled like straw.
Survivor Edward Dyer described a hissing sound just before he was knocked to the ground. Despite suffering extensive burns, he walked home and pleaded with his wife not to call the doctor, whom he knew would be needed to assist his fellow workers.
The cause of the explosion was never determined. The boilers were only thirteen years old at the time and had passed safety inspections the previous June. Despite the damage, the mill was repaired and continued to operate for several more years.
In total, the deadly disaster claimed the lives of four men and injured nearly twenty more.
Nicole Cox is a trustee at the Lawrence County Museum & Historical Society and owner of LawrenceCountyOhio.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.