The Civil War Richmond website has an article on about one Friday the 13th disaster that happened in 1863- “Richmond’s Great Homefront Disaster” – The first hint of tragedy was a dull, prolonged roar from the direction of Brown’s Island, a mound of dirt in the James River at the base of Seventh Street. The island, […]
The first hint of tragedy was a dull, prolonged roar from the direction of Brown’s Island, a mound of dirt in the James River at the base of Seventh Street. The island, described two years earlier as a pretty little wilderness of bamboo and brush wood, had been transformed into a collection of one-story, frame buildings in which several hundred employees, most of them young girls, produced much of the ammunition that kept the Confederate army fighting.
The roar startled some Richmonders, but many, used to hearing explosions from the testing of ordnance at the nearby Tredegar Iron Works, paid scant attention. Several minutes later, dense smoke made townsfolk aware that something indeed was wrong. The telltale smoke came from the destruction of a department of the Confederate States Laboratory, an installation referred to in early 1863 as the salvation of the Confederacy.
Gorgas knew what had become common knowledge in the capital; the tragedy had been caused by an 18-year-old girl, Mary Ryan.
The colonel wrote in his diary: “The accident was caused by the ignition of a friction primer in the hands of a grown girl by the name of Mary Ryan. She . . .gave a clear account of the circumstances. The primer stuck in the varnishing hoard and she struck the board three times very hard on the table to drive out the primer. She says she was immediately blown up to the ceiling and on coming down was again blown up.”
Ryan, a native of Ireland, suffered with her injuries until the Monday after the explosion. She died at her father’s home on Oregon Hill, a residential area within a mile of the laboratory.