Powder had been made in Acton since the 1830s. In the 1890s, the American Powder Mills ran a large operation at the intersection of the towns of Acton, Maynard, Sudbury and Concord. High demand for smokeless powder led another firm to locate in Acton. In May, 1898, the Enterprise announced that the New York and New England Titanic Smokeless Powder Company was building a plant in South Acton in John Fletcher’s pasture near Rocky Brook and Parker’s crossing on the Fitchburg railroad. The building was to be approximately 100 x 20 feet with one story for manufacturing, and there would be a storehouse (presumably separate). The product would be “Titanic smokeless” powder. The paper noted, “There is but little danger in the making of this powder.” (May 19, page 8) The firm obtained government orders, and the Fitchburg Railroad added a track to the mill site.
Open for business around the beginning of September, the company immediately realized that the installed machinery was not suitable and would have to be replaced. The factory finally started work around the end of October. After only a week of operation, the mill blew up. (Nov. 3, page 8) The cause was uncertain, but one of the men working inside noticed something was wrong with the machinery and was able to alert the others in time for everyone to escape. Employee Dyer had to make his way out through fire, but with the help of the others, removed his burning clothing and was mostly unharmed. The Enterprise assured the public that “The buildings were thoroughly made and everything was in first class order,” probably addressing a common question about the cause. A previous article had mentioned that “work on the new powder mill is rushing.” (May 26, page 8)
The company rebuilt. In fact, the Enterprise noted that the explosion had provided winter employment for a fair number of people in South Acton. (Jan. 19, 1899, page 8] In February, 1899, the powder mill was pronounced to be sound and ready to work. “We wish them better luck than last time,” wrote the Enterprise (Feb. 8, page 7). Sadly, by the end of the year, the New York & New England Titanic Smokeless Powder Company was in involuntary bankruptcy (Enterprise, Dec. 21, 1899, page 11 and Boston Sunday Globe, Dec. 17, 1899 page 21). The machinery was sold off to people from Nashua, NH (Enterprise, Sept. 8, 1900, page 8). We did not find out what happened to the building.
Meanwhile, the well-established American Powder mills nearby were having their own excitement. The Concord Junction news in the January 27, 1898 Enterprise (page 5) mentioned that an explosion at the powder mill had been felt, though we could not find details or confirmation anywhere else. In early September, 1899, the company’s “Wheel Mill No. 5” blew up, followed quickly by No. 4. (Enterprise, Sept. 7, 1899, p. 4) The manufacturing process involved grinding powder between two enormous wheels that were powered, by 1899, by electricity. In this case, about five hundred pounds of powder in the two mills exploded, but fortunately there was no loss of life. A little over a month later, it was discovered that in the very early hours of Saturday morning October 14, someone had created a 125-foot long trail of powder from the woods behind the property, along a plank walk and the railroad tracks, to “the pulverizing mill which was in operation. The air was surcharged with powder and the slightest spark would have caused an explosion which would have blown all the surrounding buildings into atoms” along with the eight men working there. (Enterprise, Oct. 19, 1899, p. 6) Luckily, the powder burned out before reaching the mill. The case was not hard to crack; a disgruntled worker’s face had been severely burned from his attempt. Though at first he only acknowledged being in the woods and drinking, eventually he pleaded guilty. (Lowell Sun, Oct. 16, page 4 and Oct. 21, pm edition page 1; Enterprise, Oct. 19, page 6)
There really was no need for spies around Acton’s powder mills; they were dangerous enough places on their own, with malfunctioning equipment and angry workers making the risks even greater. Though it was neither the first nor the last time Acton’s powder industry would make the news, 1898 and 1899 were interesting years.