Today’s post was developed from a former exhibit titled ”Allegheny Arsenal Explosion and the Creation of Public Memory.” The exhibit was initially displayed at the National Archives at Philadelphia and was then featured online as a digital exhibit. In collaboration with the National Archives Web Division, the National Archives at Philadelphia has reformatted the content from an online exhibit to a blog post for better access. It features records from the National Archives at Philadelphia along with related records from the Library of Congress and Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center


On September 17, 1862, a mix of anticipation and uncertainty filled the air as young girls assembled to collect their pay at Pittsburgh’s Allegheny Arsenal. In the 1860s, news trickled in by word-of-mouth, telegraph, and newspaper. For weeks, rumors swirled of a possible Confederate attack as Union and Confederate forces descended on western Maryland for what would become known as the bloodiest battle of the Civil War: the Battle of Antietam. 

As the battle shook western Maryland, the disaster at the Arsenal likewise rocked the Lawrenceville community when a pair of explosions killed 78 people. It’s unclear exactly how or why the explosions occurred, though some records reveal unsafe working practices and storage facilities. The tragedy at the Allegheny Arsenal was largely overshadowed by the Battle of Antietam; very few records of the disaster survived. This post interrogates the lack of documentation, explores the records that do exist, and features an interpretive painting of the explosion by Alina Josan.


Originally designed by Benjamin Latrobe, the Allegheny Arsenal was a fixture in the economic and social life of 19th-century Pittsburgh. Built in 1814, the arsenal supplied and communicated with the west from 38 hilly acres in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania. 

The Allegheny Arsenal developed an important relationship to the Lawrenceville community. During the Civil War, many women and children worked at the Allegheny Arsenal filling cartridges, making harnesses, and handling live gunpowder. Overwhelmingly, the people who worked at the arsenal were of Irish-Catholic heritage and lived in Lawrenceville.

Both census and payroll records show that the daughters, sisters, and wives of the immigrant families performed dangerous munitions work at the arsenal to earn desperately needed income. Most relied on community members such as physicians and clergymen to provide character references before they could begin work. Employment at the arsenal enticed young girls, widows, mothers, and wives who struggled to make ends meet with husbands, brothers, fathers, and sons off to war.

Colonel John Symington commanded the Allegheny Arsenal at the time of the explosion. However, questions linger about his health, ability, and desire to command the arsenal. Less than a month before the disaster, the U.S. military’s retirement board denied Symington’s request for retirement. Rumors also circulated that Major Symington, the commandant of the arsenal, harbored Confederate sympathies.

These fears held some merit. Symington’s own son joined the Confederate forces, and his daughter married Confederate General William Boggs. These incidents inflamed community sentiments. Symington’s contentious relationship with the surrounding neighborhood and the divisions within his own family likely informed his request for retirement just weeks before the fateful explosion.

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