Milford Ordinance Plant Explosion 75th Anniversary

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by Terry Rogers

 

 

Red Elm Farm in 1949; location of Milford Ordinance Plant

During World War II, Milford played an important role in the war effort with the establishment of the Milford Ordinance Plant which was located on the north side of Cedar Beach Road in an area known as Powder Mill Knoll and close to where the Mispillion Marina was located. The plant opened in July 1942 and, by 1943, was in full operation. Tragedy struck the plant on March 19, 1943 when an explosion killed five female employees and injured 25 more.

According to Milford Historian, Dave Kenton, the Milford Ordinance Plant was a subsidiary of the Triumph Explosives Company in Elkton, Maryland. When war was declared on Germany and Japan on December 7, 1941, much of the United States manufacturing economy was appropriated by the government for wartime use, including the DuPont Company’s gunpowder production. Under DuPont’s direction, Triumph Explosives’ Elkton location was the first to manufacture 40mm naval artillery shells.

It is unclear why Milford was chosen for the second Triumph Explosives plant, but in 1942, the company hired James J. Dervin to build a plant that was similar to the one in Elkton. Dervin, a World War I veteran, was well-connected in Philadelphia politics and held a civil engineering degree from LaSalle University. The land used for the plant was purchased from Medford Jones in 1942.

The lands of the Milford Ordinance Plant stretched from the Dyke Bridge to a small residential area known as Brown Street and extended to the Mispillion River. It included all lands owned by the Mispillion Marina as well. The home and barn that Jones used when he owned the property became the administration building for the new plant. Dervin did not live on the plant property as his employers housed him and his family in Sunnybrae Mansion. There is some evidence that one of the owners of National Products, Inc., George A. Lippincott, who owned Sunnybrae at the time, was an investor in the ordinance plant. He and his brother-in-law, Henry C. Wagamon, bought Sunnybrae after Edward M. Davis, who built the mansion, lost it after losing money in the stock market during the Great Depression. Dervin, his wife, Mary, and their children, Joanne, James Jr., Mary Lou, Ellen and Michael lived in the mansion with Dervin traveling across an old iron drawbridge on Rehoboth Boulevard each day as his commute to work.

According to his son, Michael Dervin, there was not much support from the Elkton plant as they were too busy meeting the demand from the federal government for wartime supplies. Michael understood from his father that the Elkton plant was supposed to supply blueprints for the new plant and that each building would be completed “one at a time.” However, those blueprints were never supplied and Dervin began constructing what would eventually be 37 buildings on the site so that he could start production. One of the requirements was a 25,000-gallon water tower that Dervin designed. The tower was built by Albert Rumpstitch.

On February 17, 1943, an explosion at the plant which occurred when employees were cleaning the gunpowder room injured 12 people.  One woman, Jeanette Fisher, suffered serious injuries, but the plant did not shut down. The same day, an explosion occurred at the Elkton plant, but an investigation by the United States Navy found the incidents were unrelated.

Then, on Tuesday, March 19, 1943, the Milford Ordinance Plant was in full operation when a spark of static electricity ignited gunpowder in one of the manufacturing sheds. The explosion was described as a flash blast that ripped the end out of one of the assembly buildings. Five women working in the end of the powder loading room were killed. Louise Hill of Milford, Katherine Thomas of Milton, Edith Marker of Georgetown, Pauline Maloney of Georgetown and Eleanor Spence of Camden all died in the blast. There were 33 injuries reported as well, five of them serious. Maloney and Hill both died the same day of the blast while Marker, Thomas and Spence died the next day. Although some of the injured were treated and released, Mary Jerman of Milton, Marie Bowers of Georgetown, Madeline Oliphant of Laurel, Alice Mason of Seaford, Mildred McGee of Seaford, Jerdy Jenkins of Greenwood and Whitely Lewis of Laurel suffered serious burns and lacerations.

Hill, the only casualty from Milford, was 21-years old, the wife of Harry L. Hill, Jr. She had a five-year-old daughter, Janet Lee. She was survived by a foster mother, Margaret Bland, two brothers, Edwin and William Knipp and a sister, Thelma Rutche, who was a student nurse at the hospital where Hill passed away.

The explosion occurred at the end of a building with an interior partition. News reports at the time claim that the partition may have saved many lives although it was demolished. Flames roared through the small building which hampered guards from administering aid to the injured. Mayor Edward Evans and City Manager Charles Banning organized the rescue efforts, ordering auxiliary police to guard the plant and auxiliary firemen to assist Carlisle Fire Company in fighting the blaze.

The Milford Ordinance Plant continued operation, never closing down operations due to the explosion. The plant made changes to their safety practices and, on October 26, 1944, the plant was presented with a National Security Award by then Governor Walter Bacon.

As World War II drew to an end, the future of the Milford Ordinance Plant was uncertain. On July 25, 1945, Triumph Explosives, Inc. sold the property to Milford Chemical & Manufacturing Company, owned by Edward J. Lyons and Dervin. The men hoped to convert the ordinance plant for peacetime use. On August 25, 1945, newspapers announced that the 200 workers would be hired at the plant to make parts for the Noma Electric Company out of New York City. By 1945, the plant was supposed to have 500 employees, but the contract from Noma never happened. Instead, Dervin found a truly peaceful use for the plant.

During 1946 and 1947, the company manufactured children’s dolls for Cameo and Effanbee Doll Company. The initial contract was for 4,000 Kewpie and Patsy Dolls, but the plant never produced that many dolls as the contract evaporated. At some point, Dervin took out a mortgage on the property with Harrison Brothers & Company, who foreclosed on January 14, 1948. On March 30, 1948, the land was sold at auction to Clesson Bridgeham and William Vernon Benson.

 

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