Massive Explosion In 1891 Caused Time To Stopped For Two Rock Springs Residents

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A pocket watch is all that remains of two men blown up in a massive explosion that occurred in Rock Springs on July 17, 1891. Photo courtesy of the Sweetwater County Historical Museum. 

Contributed by Dick Blust, Sweetwater County Historical Society

Sweetwater County, WY ( 8/24/19) – Combining firearms with alcohol is fraught with danger now and was equally perilous in the late 19th century.​

 

About 3:00 p.m. on the afternoon on July 17, 1891, there was a tremendous explosion near the Number 6 coal mine, north of Rock Springs, about 200 yards west of what is now the intersection of Springs Drive and Elk Street.

The scene was the location of the huge explosives magazine used by the Union Pacific, which had contained, according to subsequent testimony, “1,213 kegs of black powder and 550 pounds of Giant powder.” ​

 

Townspeople who rushed to the site held out little hope for the two dozen families who lived nearby. The magazine was completely destroyed; all that remained was “a large circular, deep hole, its surface begrimed with smoke.” The railroad track near the magazine was “torn to pieces, some of the ties standing bolt upright, and the rails are twisted, turned and broken.”​

Homes, stables, hen houses, outbuildings, and wagons were destroyed or heavily damaged. Miraculously, no close-by residents were killed, though several were injured. A child named Jessie Gibson was hurt when she was blown off a bed through the door of her home “at least twenty feet” onto the road. ​

​The same could not be said for Jacob Santala and Jacob Hilli. ​

 

​Santala, a Rock Springs saloon keeper, and Hilli, a friend from Almy, were out on a horse-drawn buggy (actually a sulky) ride that day and, according to a witness’s testimony before a coroner’s jury:​

“Those two men [Santala and Hilli] came up to our house and asked me for a glass to drink beer out of. They had a big pistol on the seat of the sulky. I asked them what they were doing with the pistol, and they said, ‘we are going to shoot down there.’  They drove between the posts of the sheep corral and fired a shot at the door of the powder house.  I could just see the wheels of the sulky when I heard another shot and that was the last I saw.  They were 10 to 12 feet from the powder house.  They had two flasks of liquor; one of the men was so drunk that he could not hold his head up.   The saloon keeper fired the shots.”​

​Both men died instantly, as did their horse. As reported in the Rock Springs Miner on July 18, 1891, their remains “were scattered over the prairie” and “pieces of their limbs were picked up 300 yards from the place.”​

 

A badly-damaged pocket watch belonging to one of the men was recovered and is on display a the Sweetwater County Historical Museum in Green River.​

The museum, located at 3 E. Flaming Gorge Way in Green River, is currently operating on summer hours, 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM, Monday through Saturday. Admission is free. ​