That particular summer’s day, July 2, 1918, began, or more like continued, like all the days before it as the munitions manufacturing facility at Split Rock in Onondaga was an around the clock operation.
The owners of the site, Semet-Solvay (better known to most as Solvay Process) knew the importance of this plant as it supported WWI efforts, at first filling the demands of the European powers – England, France and Italy – before the entrance of the United States into the war and its’ need for the products manufactured at Split Rock. This plant produced a variety of products important to the fight against Germany, such as T.N.T., picric acid, poison gas, and smokeless powder (gunpowder for shells).
On the evening of July 2, 1918 around 8:30 pm a fire erupted and the alarm sounded. Workers from all around the site rushed forward to extinguish it. Some of them reported a change in the water pressure that slowed the fight with the flames. An hour later, 9:30 pm, an explosion shattered the air, followed by smoke and fire billowing skyward. Reverberations shook the community – Onondaga Hill, Camillus, every inch of Split Rock through to downtown Syracuse. People poured from homes, businesses, movie theaters, restaurants to look to the west and see what was happening. Many headed to the hills surrounding Syracuse for a better view. The “Rock” had exploded.
Newspaper accounts from that day and days to follow gave evidence of the chaos and confusion of that night. Ambulances wove through car and people clogged roads to access the dead and injured. Hospitals were overwhelmed with the men being brought in and, unfortunately, the coroner’s office was, too.
With the flames extinguished and the smoke clearing, the Split Rock community was devastated to find the TNT buildings, picric acid and nitric buildings, the administration buildings, the restaurant and laboratory in ruins. Building pieces were thrown a half mile away, hanging from trees, damaging homes, littering yards and roads. The real devastation was the tragedy that befell families as over 50 men were killed, some never being identified. Mothers and fathers and wives were left wondering what happened to their loved ones.
One hundred years later, this event is being commemorated by the Town of Onondaga Historical Society supported by the Onondaga Town Board, by declaring 2018 to be “The Year of the Rock, in the Town of Onondaga.
The historical society was fortunate to have the Onondaga Community College Honors Seminar Class, taught by Professor Laurel Saiz, make the Split Rock Disaster the focus of their semester’s work. The class created a Friends of Split Rock Facebook Page (an excellent resource for those who would like to learn more about Split Rock past and present), wrote a play entitled “Split Rock- Stories of the Split Rock Explosion of 1918” which will be performed in partnership with the Onondaga Historical Association, and have planned a ceremony to take place on the night of July 2, 2018 to honor the memory of those who lives were lost 100 years ago at Split Rock.
The Town of Onondaga Historical Society will be hosting a speaker series throughout 2018 on the topic of Split Rock. Some of the scheduled talks include the importance of the days when the site was the scene of numerous quarries whose extracted rock played important roles in the construction of the Erie Canal and multiple buildings throughout Onondaga County, rock cutting and the Split Rock munitions site before and after the explosion. The historical society museum, located at 5020 Ball Road, currently has a display of Split Rock artifacts, pictures and newspaper articles, open to the public, Monday thru Fridays 1 to 3 pm.
Though it has been 100 years since that fateful July evening, there still may be stories, letters, artifacts, and memories circulating among families. If you or someone you know has information to share, the Town of Onondaga Historical Society welcomes you to let us know through our Town of Onondaga Historical Society Facebook Page or contact us through our website.
Photos of Split Rock provided.