Articles & Stories

Mason Countians Shaken From Sleep By Terrible Explosion In 1854

Not A Single Life Lost When 800 Kegs Of Blasting And Rifle
Powder Exploded Along The Lexington And Maysville Turnpike

Compiled by Earl White - 2007

On the evening of August 13, 1854, the residents of Maysville, Mason County, Kentucky, and the neighboring communities were literally shaken from their sleep. A person or persons unknown caused a powder magazine, which was located on the Lexington and Maysville Turnpike, to explode. The contents of that magazine, consisting of 800 kegs of blasting and rifle powder, were burned, causing a great explosion and destruction of property. The location of the magazine was alongside the road that leads southward out of Maysville and at the foot of the old Route 68 hill in an area known today as Sleepy Hollow.
The explosion occurred at 2:15 a.m., noted an early extra edition published by the Maysville Express later that same morning. That edition stated that in the neighborhood of the magazine fired were two other magazines containing powder, which also exploded and burned, causing two distinct flashes of light preceding their explosions.
According to this early newspaper report, not a house in the city of Maysville, Kentucky, or Aberdeen, Ohio, across the Ohio River, escaped damage. A stone weighing 43 pounds was found in Aberdeen, one-and-one-third miles from the spot of explosion. Miraculously, no one was killed. William Conwell was the only person seriously injured, receiving sundry cuts and bruises. Two large stones were found in the bed, in which he had been sleeping. An unconfirmed report stated that a Negro was thrown from his bed in Orangeburg, Kentucky, some ten miles away.
The Maysville Eagle, another Maysville newspaper, followed with another article on August 14th. It reported that a Maysville powder magazine fired a terrific explosion with 800 kegs of powder and 13 houses were destroyed. One hundred thousand dollars in property damage occurred and a $1,000 reward was offered for information concerning the cause of the explosions.
The citizens were aroused from their sleep by the most tremendous and awful explosion ever heard in their midst. The light produced was intensely vivid, startling hundreds of citizens from a sound sleep and awakening them to the sudden realization of the awful judgment day. The noise and the terrible concussion confirmed many hundred sinners in the conviction that Gabriel was blowing his horn. Women screamed and children ran in terror. Desolation and imminent danger were everywhere, and yet, in the special providence of God, not a life was lost.
Glass, stones, and bricks lined the city's streets, and a sulfurous atmosphere caused many to feel faint. A crowd of men carried the body of William Conwell, Esq., one of the ablest and soundest lawyers in Kentucky, from his residence and to the Lee House. He was bleeding profusely and thought by some to be dying.
A reward was offered for the apprehension and the conviction of the scoundrels who fired the magazines, believed to be five in number. The Honorable Judge DeWalt ordered a special term of court for the investigation by a grand jury.
A later edition of the Maysville Eagle described the lay of the land surrounding the magazines which explained why so few injuries occurred. Those at a distance and not acquainted with the localities about Maysville will understand the reason why. The damage is so immense that $80,000 cannot replace everything.
The powder magazines that were blown were situated in a narrow hollow or gorge, along where the Maysville and Lexington Turnpike ascends the hill south of town. The distance is less than one-third mile from the courthouse and the heart of the city. If the elevation of the site had not been 100 feet over the heads of the sleeping citizens, at least 500 would have been killed or mangled in their beds.
The magazines themselves were of tolerably thick limestone and the walls of three-brick thickness with solid iron doors. A stone weighing 102 pounds was thrown across the Ohio River, a mile away.
Public buildings which suffered damages were the courthouse, the lower city brick school, and Rand and Richerson's Seminary. Professor Rand's dwelling next to the Seminary was damaged. Churches damaged were the German Methodist, the Episcopal and Catholic churches, the African Methodist Church, and the African Baptist Church. Two other African churches, being nearer the center of the explosion, both suffered great losses. The Christian, or Reformed Church, lost a portion of its roof. The Methodist Episcopal Church lost chandeliers and glass windows. The Presbyterian Church, on Third Street, the finest in the state outside of Lexington or Louisville, had nearly all sashes, shutters, furniture, and walls damaged. (This church left a hole on its left outer wall for many years as mute testimony of that terrible explosion.)
Businesses damaged were the Maysville Cotton Mills, Ryan's Hemp Magazine, Pickett's Grain House, Shackleford's Storage Houses, Frank's Tinware, and every store on Second and Market streets suffered broken glass windows.
Dwellings suffered extensive damage too numerous to mention. The Armstrong House had damages in the amount of $35,000.
The steamer, Huron, a Cincinnati packet, docked at the landing place on the lower grade, was pierced by a number of stones, one of which passed into the hull an inch above the waterline, with others passing through the roof and cabin floor into the Ohio River. One such stone went entirely through the stateroom where the clerk, Rolla Cooper, and his wife were sleeping, hitting less than four inches from Mrs. Cooper's head.
At the residence of William Wadsworth, Esq., on Second Street, six or eight large stones struck the house. One pierced the shutter and window and shattered the bedstead of Mr. J. J. Cartoon and his wife and infant, who had arrived from New Orleans only four hours earlier.
Many other accounts were told of the destruction and force of the explosions that occurred in the early morning hours of August 13, 1854. Stories of broken windows and shaken citizens followed. Yet, as described earlier by the editor of the Maysville Eagle, the elevated site of the magazines above the city property caused most of the propelled stones to arc over the top of most businesses and residences. Not a single life was lost.
No suspects were ever brought to trial in regard to the firing of the magazines. Local lore implied that it was the result of a lark by some of the young men of the city. If so, it proved to be an expensive lark.

Earl White, 1787 Brooksville-Powersville Road, Brooksville, KY 41004, shares this article with our readers.