Dynamite

ISOLATED and avoided, the high-explosive plant lies half hidden in a waste of sloughs and sand-dunes. Like the barren country that surrounds it, the plant itself seems a part of desolate nature, stunted and storm-beaten as the wind-swept hills. Against the straight line of the horizon rise no massive structures of steel or stone; no sound of man or machine breaks the soft stillness; no smoke clouds stain the blue of the autumn sky. Half buried in the rolling sand, a hundred small green buildings scatter in wild disorder along winding paths among the scrub oaks. The voices of undisturbed wild fowl rise from the fens and marshland.

In the little office at the gate I left my matches and put on a pair of wooden-pegged powder shoes. Outside, the faint flavor of last night’s frost freshened the morning air, and above the red and yellow of the scrub oaks the autumn sun was shining in a pale blue sky.

At my side, the superintendent was explaining the processes of manufacture which I was soon to see; but my mind was curiously unresponsive; in the peace of the morning air an ominous presence seemed to surround me; an invisible force that needed but a spark or the slightest impulse to awaken it, annihilating and devastating in its sudden fury.

Beyond the office, like the letter ‘S,’ a high sand-dune bent in a general eastand-west direction, a sweep of marshland in each sheltering curve. Against the outer bank of its first wide crescent the small power plant and a row of red one-story buildings marked a single street. From the open door of the power-house the rhythmic drone of a generator accentuated the stillness. Down a track between the buildings a horse plodded slowly over the worn ties, dragging a small flat car, the driver leaning lazily against one of the uprights which supported a dingy awning.

The manufacture of dynamite consists of two separate processes which are conducted individually up to a certain point, when their products meet, and by their union the actual dynamite is produced. In the little buildings by the power-house the first of these products was in process of manufacture. Here the fine wood-dust, mixed with other materials, was prepared, — an absorbent to hold the nitroglycerin which was being made half a mile beyond the nearest, sand-dune. Packed in paper cartridges the nitroglycerinsoaked ‘dope,’ or saw’dust, is called by a single name — dynamite.

In two great open pans, slowly revolving paddles were turning over and over a mass of wood-pulp, fine and soft as snow. The room was warm from the sunshine on the low roof and the drying fires below the pans; there was a strong clean smell of sawdust. The building was deserted; unattended, the paddles swung noiselessly with the low sound of well-oiled machinery.

Inside the next building a couple of men were weighing great measures of white powder from bins along the wall. The superintendent picked up a printed slip from a desk by the window.

‘ Nitrat e of soda, nitrate of ammonia, wood-pulp, marble-dust. That’s the formula for this batch. Sometimes we put in sulphur, or flour, or magnesium carbonate. It’s all according to what kind of an explosive is wanted, —what it’s to be used for.’

Far down at the end of the little street the strong, hot smell of paraffine hung heavy in the air. Inside, against the walls of the building, the paper cartridges were drying; racks of waxed yellow tubes half filled the building.

Here the first process of manufacture was completed. Stable and harmless, the fragrant wood-dust was being prepared for its union with that strange evanescent spirit which would endow it with powers of lightning strength and rapidity.

With our powder shoes sinking in the sliding sand we climbed the path to the top of the hill which marked the centre of the twisted dune. On its summit the frame building of the nitrater notched the sky. Here in the silence between earth and clouds, a mighty force was seeking birth.

Perched on a high stool, an old man in overalls bent intently over the top of a great tank, his eyes fixed on a thermometer which protruded from its cover. Above, a shaft and slowly turning wheels moved quietly in the shadows of the roof. There was a splashing of churning liquid, and the bite of acid sharpened the air.

The old man turned his head for a moment to nod to us. Below his feet a coil of pipes white with a thick frost rime entered the bottom of the tank, a cooling solution to keep the temperature of the churning acid within the limit of safety.

As we stepped inside the doorway the splashing grew louder; the bitter reek of the acid seemed to scorch my nostrils. Slowly the old man turned a valve beside him and a thick trickle of glycerine flowed heavily into an opening in the top of the tank. Inside the blackened caldron a strange transformation was in progress. Were the glycerine allowed to become completely nitrated by the acid, the windows of the distant city would rattle in the blast which would surely follow. Carefully, the nitrating must be brought almost to that danger point and abruptly arrested; so near that later in the form of dynamite the nitrating could be instantly completed and the desired explosive obtained by the jarring impulse of an electric spark. Like a child pushing a dish to poise on the table edge, the old man was bringing this dynamic mixture to a precarious balance.

The superintendent pointed to a cistern filled with water just behind the nitrater.

‘Before we had the brine pipes to keep the acid cool, it used to heat up occasionally. It gives up red fumes when it passes the danger point. You ought to see the quick work Old Charley used to do, — open that faucet in the nitrater to let the acid and glycerine dump into the cistern and drown; blow the alarm whistle, and then everybody beat it!’

The old man looked up from the thermometer.

‘She’s ready.’

Deliberately he climbed down from the stool and opened a switch behind him: the splashing of the paddles ceased; the process was completed.

Behind the tank an earthenware faucet opened into a long lead gutter that passed out of the building. Fascinated, I watched him as he slowly turned the handle. From the spout a stream of viscous liquid gushed noisily and flowed off in a sullen current.

‘Nitroglycerin,’ — the superintendent pointed his finger at the splashing stream; — ‘of course, it’s impure now, mixed with acid. We’ll see it purified in the separating houses.’

I was disappointed. Vaguely I had expected that something would happen; how could this dull oily liquid be that fearful thing which it had been represented?

‘There’s enough in that trough now to wreck a battleship,’ he added.

Under the crest of a curving hill, half a mile away, was the mix-house. From the nitrater we had followed the nitroglycerin through the dangerous process of its separation from the acid, its perfect neutralization. Here, at last, the explosive fluid would assume its final form. Mixed with the absorbent dope, in a crummy consistency it would become dynamite.

The sunshine filled the little room with yellow light; a blue fly buzzed noisily against the window. Facing the flat marshland the building rested in a deep cut in the hillside; behind it the solid hill, on either side an artificial embankment or barricade of sand and timber.

In the centre of the room was a cumbersome machine like an archaic mill for crushing grain. Hung from an axle revolving on a perpendicular central shaft, two great wooden wheels, four feet in diameter, rested in a circular trough; a pair of giant cart-wheels with broad, smooth tires of pine.

There was a sound outside the building. Down a board walk, that disappeared behind a hill in the direction of the separating house, came a man pushing a square wagon, completely covered with rubber blankets: three hundred pounds of nitroglycerin.

Swiftly the two workmen filled the circular trough with the prepared woodpulp. The wagon was trundled softly into the room. From a tank in the corner a measure of brown, sweet-smelling aromatic oil was mixed into the contents of the cart.

Something was going to happen. A sudden impulse to run before it was too late seized me. The cart was pushed beside the trough. From a hose in its base a heavy brown fluid gushed over the powdery dope. Slowly the steady stream became a trickle and ceased.

There was a faint sound and I knew that the current was thrown in; the great axle began to revolve on the shaft. One and then the other, the giant wheels turned heavily. Under the advancing ploughs the brown stain of nitroglycerin faded in the yellow of the dope. Round and round, heavily the smooth wheels pressed the flocculent mass, cleanly the sharp ploughs turned furrows behind them —Dynamite!

I started violently at the voice of the superintendent. It seemed hours instead of minutes since this death-taunting machine had begun; hours in which each second might bring annihilation.

‘It’s mixed.’

The wheels ceased to revolve. With wooden shovels the workmen scooped the dynamite from the trough and pitched it into fibre cans, as big as barrels.

As though built to withstand the siege guns of an enemy, the dugouts of the packers faced the marsh in a long straggling line against the hillside. Like the mix-house, each building sank deep into the sand bank, its sides protected by enveloping barricades.

In each small cell two men were working. There was little talking. Silence hung heavy over the hills and marshland; a strange blending of peace and terror that made harsh sounds improper and jarring to the senses.

With quick dexterity the empty paper tubes which I had seen in process of manufacture when I began this perilous journey, were inserted in the packing machine. An abrupt movement, and they were packed with dynamite and laid in boxes beside the workers.

I picked up one of the ‘sticks ’ from a half-filled box. ‘Stump Dynamite.’

Hour after hour, day after day, the filled boxes were trundled down the board walk to the magazine. ‘Stump Dynamite.’ I had always thought of this great industry as a destructive agency, of high explosives as carriers of death and desolation. But where the forests have vanished before the axes of the woodmen, dynamite is clearing fields for the next year’s planting. In the black entries of the mine the undercut coal-face falls shattered at the blast of the explosives. Through the walls of mountain ranges it is tearing loose the solid rock that trains may some day follow the level rails; through blasted tunnels flows water to moisten the lips of a parching city; from ocean to ocean it has opened a giant cut that deep sea vessels may carry their cargoes by shorter routes; deep under the strata of the earth’s crust its sudden shock shakes the oil well into life; its rending breath tears the red ore of iron from the living rock.

Labors of Hercules! What are the feats of the earthborn son of Jupiter to the mighty wonders accomplished by this tabloid thunderbolt! Death and destruction may come from its sharp detonation, but for every life that goes out in siege or battle a hundred lives are sustained by its quiet labor in field or mine.

The afternoon sun was setting behind a mist of autumn clouds. In the silence of the dunes and marsh the clear call of a bird sounded sharp and silvertuned in a run of hurried melody.