Remembering the Washington Arsenal explosion

My wife and I attended the 150th anniversary of the Washington Arsenal explosion, which killed 21 women, most of them poor Irish immigrants. The memorial at the historic Congressional Cemetery in Southeast D.C. capped a week of remembrances. Irish Foreign Minister Eamon Gilmore visited the cemetery to place a wreath at the monument, titled “Grief,” in addition to meeting with U.S. political leaders about immigration issues.

There also was a memorial at the former arsenal site.


Here’s a taste of contemporary coverage of the explosion from the Washington Star the day after the horrible event:

The excitement attendant upon the terrible explosion and loss of life at the Arsenal yesterday was kept up throughout the entire day. An excited crowd of relatives of the laboratory employees, parents, brothers, sisters, anxious as to the fate of those dear to them, thronged about the outer gate leading to the Arsenal, and the scenes here were heart-rending. …

The scene while the fire was in progress was truly heart-rending. Those who could, jumped from the windows, and many of them fainted as soon as they alighted on the ground. By the heroism of some persons present, some of the girls who were enveloped in flames, were saved from a frightful death. One young lady ran out of the building with her dress all in flames, and was at once seized by a gentleman, who, in order to save her, plunged her into the river. …

A singular feature of the sad spectacle was that presented by a number of the bodies nearly burned to a cinder being caged, as it were, in the wire of their hooped skirts. These bodies seemed more badly burned than those not enveloped in hoops, and it is probable that the expansion of the dress by the hoops afforded facilities for the flames to fasten upon them with fatal effect.

For more detail, blogger Allen Brown published this excellent post (with better photos than mine) about the event. And here’s a link to “The Washington Arsenal Explosion: Civil War Disaster in the Capital,” a definitive book by the late Brian Bergin.


Bergin’s daughter, Erin Bergin Voorheis, gave remarks at the cemetery memorial. She pointed out that shortly before the explosion a letter was read to the woman acknowledging receipt of their $170 contribution to the erection of a monument to the victims of a similar disaster at Pittsburgh 21 months earlier. Seventy-eight workers were killed in the explosion, again mostly poor Irish immigrant women.

At the Washington arsenal, “the surviving workers were poor, but rich in organizing skills,” Bergin Voorheis said. Within two days of the tragedy they managed to stage what was until then the city’s largest funeral. President Abraham Lincoln lead the throng of mourners to Congressional Cemetery.

Again, the surviving workers and other city residents collected donations to fund a monument for the Washington victims. Irish sculptor Lot Flannery of Limerick was given the commission. His work, “Grief,” was erected by March 1865 and was to be dedicated at the cemetery on the one-year anniversary of the explosion. But Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865 diverted the nation’s attention, and the ceremony presumably never took place, according to Paul Williams, president of Historic Congressional Cemetery.

The north face of the monument’s base panel makes note that the memorial was “Erected/By Public Contribution/By the Citizens of/ Washington D.C./June 17th 1865. And on June 22, 2014, it was “officially” dedicated in remembrance of the female victims.

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