Remembering Onondaga’s Split Rock Explosion


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split rockAs Rich Miller remembers, it was sometime around 1984 that a colleague at the bank where he worked first mentioned Onondaga’s Split Rock Explosion of July 2, 1918.

This was not the first time that Rich’s interest was piqued by the Split Rock Explosion. He had read former newspaper columnist Dick Case’s columns on that event, but this was the first time someone offered to take Rich up to explore Split Rock.

Over thirty years later, his research has lead him to write a four volume series about Split Rock – before, during and after the explosion that changed the lives of the people who worked there and the communities nearby.

When Rich and his friend James MacLachlan first decided to further their Split Rock knowledge, they expected to find all sorts of information. What they found was that there was little information readily available. So they went in search of documents, photos, newspaper articles, anything and everything related to their topic. As Rich describes it, they started to “match things up and the story started to come together.”

The search for historical records led to late Town of Onondaga Historian Jasena Foley’s book, The Night the Rock Blew Up. Once the pieces started to come together, their interest turned to the day-to-day operations of the munitions site, then to the chemical properties of T.N.T., picric acid and how they were manufactured and stored there. They located community members who had first hand accounts of Split Rock and recorded oral histories of at least a dozen individuals.

split rock explosionA visit to the Onondaga County Court House located  inquests connected to the July 1918 investigation of the explosion ordered by the Coroner and District Attorney. A trip to the county morgue allowed them access to the autopsy records of more than 50 men killed that July evening, some who were never identified.

As the puzzle came together, a big missing piece, according to Rich, was locating copies of the Syracuse Journal for July, 1918. The original microfilm and the backup containing copies of that particular run of the Journal had been missing for over 50 years from the Carnegie Library downtown. Eventually, with the assistance of the Onondaga Historical Association, the original papers were found, filling in blanks relating to the Split Rock story.

Rich thinks there are still stories to be told, even 100 years later. If anyone has a story passed down from parents, grandparents, and/or friends, or letters or artifacts relating to Split Rock, he would encourage you to contact him.

Rich will be speaking on several topics relating to Split Rock at Town of Onondaga Historical Society meetings throughout 2018.

For those who would like to learn more about Split Rock, Rich’s books – Flames Like Hades, Blazing Hades, Shades of Gray, and Last Testament – are available for purchase at the historical society’s museum, 5020 Ball Road, off of McDonald Road on Onondaga Hill in Syracuse. The museum is open Monday thru Fridays, 1 to 3 pm.

To contact Rich and to keep up to date with activities and commemorative events that will take place this 100th anniversary of the Split Rock Explosion, visit the Town of Onondaga Historical Society Facebook Page, the Friends of Split Rock Facebook page or the Onondaga Historical Society website.

Photos of Split Rock explosion.

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