The Berkeley Blast – 500 tons of Dynamite that blasted out the glass of San Francisco 8 miles away

“A witness near the California Powder Works reported seeing a huge column of white smoke shoot hundreds of feet into the sky seconds before he was knocked down and rendered senseless for several minutes.”

The disaster in Beirut was only a few days ago.

1869 Alfred Noble patented his invention Dynamite which is a safe method of using Nitroglycerin which had an unfortunate tendency to explode when subjected to a large shock. Dynamite made it relatively safe. The California Powerworks had the patent and started manufacturing Dynamite in Santa Cruz and in San Francisco on or near what became Golden Gate Park. There was another plant called the Hercules plant (Hercules in Greek Lore killed Giants) and so they operated facilities near each other which had a tendency to explode.

Explosions were common in munitions plants and after the second blast in San Francisco on or near Golden Gate Park that blew out the glass from downtown San Francisco to Cliff House, the city fathers decided that instead of replacing the glass in the buildings of San Francisco every time one of these things lit up, they would send the plants to Berkeley across the Bay to what is now Albany California at the Polo Grounds. The plant blew up three times and rebuilt each time until the big blast.

The following is the official record of the incident. Holden, Edward S. “Powder Explosion at West Berkeley, July 9, 1892.” Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific 4, no. 25 (1892): 187-90. Accessed August 8, 2020.

“”The Giant Powder Works plant, near West Berkeley, a suburban place on the northeastern coast of the bay, about eight miles from San Francisco, was blown up at nine o’clock A. M. on the ninth of July, and it is believed to be the most extensive explosion of the kind that has ever happened. Being situated on a spit of land projecting out into the bay there was a free course for air disturbance to the city, and other surroundings on the southern and western side of the bay, and windows were crushed for a distance of ten miles where no elevated land intervened.
The air disturbance followed channels where the physical formation permitted horizontal flow, and even streets in the city seemed to have guided the lines of greatest effect.

” The loss of life was happily very slight compared with what might be expected, most of the people after the first explosion making their way to some distance, so that the force of the explosion passed over them. The number reported killed is less than ten, of whom all but three were Chinamen. It requires only a short time, and a little distance, to get without the active circle of explosions, which act upward at an angle of ten to twenty degrees, principally because of the material being partially below the surface of the ground, as in the case of magazines, also because the first effect is to excavate a pit the walls of which act as directing angles.

“The amount of material finished and in process is not known, but was certainly not less than one hundred tons, some reports say several hundred tons.

“In what follows I have collected and condensed a few typical accounts of the effects of the explosion. From these it is quite clear that the chief damage was done by an air-wave and that the wave transmitted through the ground was comparatively feeble. Dr. BECKER of the U. S. Geological Survey makes the very pregnant suggestion that the air-wave was reflected from the surface of the water of the San Francisco Bay and thus deflected upwards against the face of the high hills on which the city is built. The powder works were themselves built on high bluffs.

The explosion of anything like this amount of dynamite, if it had been buried in the ground, would have produced an earthwave which would have been felt at Mount Hamilton. But with all the explosives above ground, as they were, no such effect could be expected. The wave-front of the air-wave must have contained an enormous energy, but when this wave-front reached the summit of Mount Hamilton it was so enlarged that no certain record of its passage can be found on our self-recording barometer sheets. I have, as yet, seen no notice of barometric observations of the air-wave in San Francisco and adjacent points though such may have been secured. The Technical Society of the Pacific Coast has considered this explosion at its meeting in July and reference is made to the Transactions of this Society (which I have not seen at the time of writing) for details. The present note is chiefly designed to record the fact that no effects from this tremendous explosion were felt at Mount Hamilton. (See also, Publications A. S. P., Vol. III, page 132.)

San Francisco. It is more than eight miles from Fleming’s Point to San Francisco, the line joining the two points being mostly over water. At least five distinct shocks were felt in the city and so severe were they that hundreds of panes of heavy plate glass were broken in the lower portion of the town. Immense iron…doors of warehouses were forced open. Buildings swayed to and fro sufficiently to frighten their occupants. Two of the iron doors of the Mint were twisted from their hinges. Every gas-light in the City Jail (and in other buildings) was extinguished by the rush of air after the last explosion.

Oakland Pier. The explosion was witnessed in part by one of our astronomers who was a passenger on the overland train, just entering Oakland Pier. The first explosion was comparatively slight; but at a distance of seven miles there was a sharp report and at the same instant the heavy Pullman car was rocked sidewise. Emerging from behind an obstruction, Fleming’s Point was in clear view across the Bay. Suddenly a sheet of flame rose at least 100 feet, and about 20 or 25 seconds later the report reached the train, the car was very violently rocked, and the windows rattled. The last two shocks occurred a few minutes later, when the passengers were on the boat in the slip. Their intensity was very much greater than that of the first shocks. The reports were sharp and strong, the buildings ·creaked under the great strain, and the ferry boat rocked very perceptibly though it was protected by the buildings from the direct air-wave. In all cases the report and the shock were simultaneous, showing that the shock was transmitted by the air and not through the water.

Oakland is about 8 miles distant. Thousands of panes of window glass were shattered in private houses, but no serious damage was done to buildings or persons. At the Chabot Observatory,
Mr. BURCKHALTER’S earthquake instrument gave a small mark like a v. An earthquake giving a mark like this would be a small affair.

Berkeley. The State University is 4 miles distant. Nearly all the window-glass in the college buildings was destroyed. As it was vacation-time the earthquake instruments were not
(I believe) in operation and no record of the disturbance was obtained.

East Oakland. Mr. BLINN’S earthquake instrument had its pen thrown entirely off the glass plate. A pipe lying on a shelf in his observatory was thrown to the floor. Mr. BLINN writes that “a great air-wave accompanied the explosion, though no mention of this appears in the papers. I was told of a man in “East Berkeley who was working on a lumber-pile, which was thrown down with him, and he says the air-wave threw it over and not the shock of the ground.”

Healdsburg is 55 miles distant. A distinct shock was felt here, which was unlike that of an earthquake. It was called an ” air-wave” in the first telegrams.

Sonoma is 25 miles distant. Panes of window-glass were broken here.

Sacramento is 60 miles distant. No damage was reported, though the shock was sufficiently severe to cause persons to rush out of the very substantial Capitol building in terror.

San Rafael is 13 miles distant. Buildings were slightly damaged.

Duncan’s Mills is 50 miles distant. The shocks were distinct and were supposed to be earthquakes.

Mount Hamilton is 50 miles distant and 4200 feet higher, with many ranges of hills lying between. No record appeared on the large EWING seismograph. The duplex instrument shows a very small mark which is possibly due at least in part, to the explosion. It is, however, so small that it may be entirely due to the shifting of the pen by temperature, etc. I have examined the sheets of the DRAPER Self-Registering Barometer -and find an exceedingly small change in the pencil line a little after 9h 30m, but it is very doubtful if this change corresponds to the arrival of the air-wave, since there are other such marks on the same sheet at other times of this day.

E. S. H.”

This led to the site being relocated to Hercules California where when it blew up in 1929 it did little damage to neighboring locations due to the way the land is situated the mountains in the area would shield most of the Bay from any blast. So they were in operation for 57 years on the site.

Naturally the real estate magnates of the San Francisco Bay area decided to build housing on the site. I will go into the details in the following article on the Hercules plant.

None of these sites are listed as state or EPA superfund cleanup sites even though the Hercules plant was an EPA superfund cleanup site in the 1990s. This can be seen in the correspondence and official records of the cleanup efforts.

So it looks like someone has purged the record of cleanups in the San Francisco Area. Perhaps Jared Blumenfeld who was on the Treasure Island Development Authority which put homeless people into the barracks of the EPA superfund site for nuclear radiation and built little league fields for the City of San Francisco on the same EPA superfund site for Nuclear Radiation should be asked how and why did someone take these sites off of the EPA superfund lists. He was the head of the EPA for the Western District of the US during the Obama Administration, perhaps he would know who took these toxic waste sites off the records? He is now the secretary for Environmental Protection for the State of California.

The obvious question is, Are there any bunkers still left at the sites and has anyone tested for instance Gold Gate Park to determine if there are underground bunkers full of explosives?


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