Powder kegs and mischief-makers
(Editor's note: This column will be an occasional column on the history of Danby. If others would like to submit columns on their towns, contact editor Darren Marcy at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
The town of Danby, Vermont, inhabited continuously since the day of its first settlement by Joseph Soper in 1765, has played host to a lively variety of extraordinary occurrences and events. One such event would no doubt be worthy of a prestigious position atop a list of Danby's most remarkable happenings, for this episode is unquestionably peculiar and fascinating in all its tragic outlandishness. Only a few years past the days of my boyhood, it is easy for me to recall and recount my many adolescent miscalculations and misfortunes, however, I feel that even in my most wayward misadventures I cannot be found guilty of such a severe blunder as that which was conducted by three of Danby's youths in the year of 1844.
In the early morning of Sunday, June 23rd, most likely following the initial conclusion of church services at the Danby Corners, three native whippersnappers were roaming in search of entertainment when they hit upon the idea of a daring exploit that would inevitably become their greatest folly. The rough-and-tumble boys' quest for some summer amusement would result in spectacular destruction, and sadly all three boys' untimely deaths.
The boys, having absconded from adult supervision, made their way to the property of Seneca Smith, an early merchant in the town who also claimed ownership and operation of the building in which the boys felt safe to play only a short distance from the church. The hazards of this particular building were probably unmatched by any other in the area at the time. Tempting fate, they decided to enter what was well-known to be the town's powder house! Contained within its humble framework of simple post and beam construction were no less than 150 barrels of fine black powder, each containing an average of 100 pounds of the destructive element; enough to wage a small war, if ever such a cause arose. The mill had been in use for many years producing valuable powder for clients throughout the county and its neighbors. However, it was on this grim day that the life of the powder house would come to its end, taking with it the lives of all three of its executioners.
The story, paraphrased from The New World (Volume 9) goes somewhat as follows: On what should have been a day of rest, the sons of three of Danby's mercantile class, in obedience to the notion that boys will always be boys, decided to trespass and invade the old Danby Four Corners store which had since been converted by its 'present' owner for use as storage, to be operated in conjunction with Mr. Seneca Smith's powder mill which stood adjacent to this facility. An early account states that whilst at play within Mr. Seneca Smith's powder magazine, the boys attempted to engage in a more daring and imaginative manner of fun. Filling a quill with powder, they proceeded to plant it atop one of the store's 150 barrels of hell and fury. It wasn't long before one of the boys had succeeded in procuring matches. Soon after, Henry Lane, age 8, and the son of David Lane, (an Irish immigrant and respectable blacksmith in town who was in operation but a few rods from Mr. Smith's establishment at the Corners) made a decision that was doomed to be his last. With one sweep of the match across the store's coarse wooden floor, Henry Lane ignited the powder, creating an explosion of biblical proportions. With less than a blink of an eye separating cause from effect, a tremendous bang resonated throughout town like the beating of a thousand drums, and Mr. Smith's Powder mill was no more. The explosion leveled the building. The place where the children had just been playing was but a charred frame. Pieces of debris exploded into the air with such ferocity that some speculate many still orbit us to this day and are quick to watch out for the supposed fragments that fall back to earth every now and again.
It was a most spectacular and horrific sight. Witnesses of the crime were fast to retell and recall how the tremendous shockwave shook the ground as though an earthquake was upon themand its power was felt and heard as far as Clarendon, Vermont, a remarkable 17 miles distant.
The force that defined the end of Mr. Smith's establishment, and took the lives of all three boys inside, wreaked its fair share of havoc on the surroundings. With its final breath, the powder mill at the Corners blew out the windows on two sides of Mr. Seneca Smith's newly constructed store, ultimately adding to the damages his pocketbook was to incur. Additionally, others contended that the roaring force of the explosion was so strong that approximately four rods or 66 feet aw it relieved one side of Mr. Varish Brown's dwelling house of its plastering and blew out all the windows on two sides of it.
General McDaniels, a first-hand witness to the crime and a respectable and honored resident of Danby, who stood just across the street from the Powder House at the time of its demise, recounts in a letter his memory of the scene. He writes: "I stood by my office window, when suddenly the building shook as with an earthquake. On looking in the direction of Mr. Seneca Smith's old store, about eight rods distant, the air was filled with smoke, flames, boards and shingles. As soon as the smoke cleared away, the first object I saw was a small boy crawling out from under the timber, clothes on fire. I at once concluded that the boy had set fire to Mr. Smith's powder magazine which he keeps in the old store. I immediately went to the ruins, where I witnessed a scene that beggars description — mothers wringing their hands and in tears inquiring for their children! On moving the rubbish we found two other boys. They were the sons of Nathan J. Smith, David Lane and Variah Brown, their ages ranging from six to ten years. They were so disfigured that we could not recognize them except by their clothes, which were on fire! The first boy I saw was Mr. Lanes'. He extricated himself, and on running a few rods met his father, who inquired of him whose boy he was. He cried, 'I am yours.'"
The account of the most venerable and esteemable General McDaniels goes on to describe the manner in which the boys were found and the course by which their lives came to a most untimely end. It is truly remarkable that all three boys survived the initial explosion to the extent that they did. Although so gruesomely disfigured, as eyewitnesses to the scene reported, they were all nonetheless found with their wits still about them. All three boys lived long enough for their families to comfort them in their final moments and present them with proper farewells. Mr. Lane's son Henry, who had lived but eight years of life prior to striking the match, was the first to succumb to his injuries, passing later that evening around 9 o'clock. Mr. Smith's son was next, leaving this earth over a week after the explosion on July 6th, 1844. General McDaniels, who gave his account of the event that same day, laments that, "Mr. Brown's is still living, but [with] little prospect of his recovery." After much research, I have not been able to ascertain whether or not Mr. Brown's son finally fell victim to his actions and joined his friends among the perished, however, it can be reasonably deduced based on the evidence presented in General McDaniel's account and lack of mention regarding Mr. Brown's son in any text after the conclusion of this episode, that he, too, was unable to recover from his wounds and traveled forthwith from this world.
The story of the great powder house explosion at Danby Four Corners gained remarkable acclaim in its time and was yet another testimony to the constant dangers that early Americans faced in their everyday lives and pursuits. Although the overwhelming tragedy and sheer magnitude of this destruction was unprecedented, history has not been kind to its memory and little mention of it will be found in the local conversations of the community. As disheartening as it is that this historic event has been lost in the pages and accounts of Danby's early settlers, I feel immensely fortunate to have obtained a records of its earliest description which ultimately enabled me to transcribe it here so that it might be admired, examined, and preserved for future generations.
Netanel Crispe, 17, is a resident of Danby. He is a Trustee for the Mt. Tabor-Danby Historical Society and the Historic Preservation Program Coordinator for the Vermont Restoration Resource. An avid metal detectorist, relic hunter and explorer. He is a senior at Burr Burton Academy.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.