A new walking/biking bridge may soon span I-435 near the former Bannister Mall complex. Its honorary name is likely to “rekindle” the name of an explosive industry that once operated in that area.
The Excelsior Powder Manufacturing Company was created on Aug. 3, 1905. Frank P. Gorman, president, was listed as the “registered agent,” in Suite 400 of the Gumbel Building in downtown Kansas City. Gorman, who had worked his way up from a powder salesman in St. Louis, by 1900 lived with his family at 3330 Baltimore Avenue. After he retired and when he died in 1933, he and his wife, Margaret, lived at 4009 Charlotte.
A year after the company started, it was making news when The Kansas City Star reported that “within ten miles of Kansas City is a village whose people live in continual dread of a terrible death. It is Holmes Park, three miles south of Swope Park. Near this village is a powder mill in which are made each day 1,000 kegs of the most powerful blasting powder.”
The mill, supervised by W. H. Gaffett, who had made powder all his life, consisted of 60 acres in the hills of south Kansas City with 20 different houses, each of them small and built of sheet iron. Each was dug into an excavation in the side of the hill, and each was far enough from the others so that if one of the “hot boxes” exploded, it might not cause any of the others to blow too.
“Within a few rods of the little white schoolhouse around which the children of the village romp and play is a great magazine in which are stored 20,000 kegs of powder. If this should explode it would wreck every house in the little village and would cause the buildings in Kansas City to tremble as if an earthquake shook them.
“In this plant twenty-four men work … who work in silence” moving slowly, lifting things gingerly and laying them down with care.
“The mental strain is hard and the men do not stay long. They come and go. Some stay for a year, more stay for six months, but the majority quit after a few weeks ...” – even with the temptation of high wages (then from $2 to $3.5/day).
Posted rules: “No matches allowed anywhere upon the place, no smoking, no striking of iron against iron, no drinking of intoxicants.”
To minimize the dangers, the journal bearings of the machinery were of brass, the tools of the workmen were brass so that no spark might be struck. There was reported 20 tons of brass upon the plant.
Accidents happened. No long before the newspaper expose, “a spark some way touched the clothing of a man who worked in the powder mill. His clothing was saturated with powder. There was no explosion, but every thread upon him went up in a flash and he died from the burns.”
They made marketable powder using sodium nitrate imported from Peru, sulfur from Louisiana and charcoal from Missouri.
By 1911, it was disclosed that the Excelsior Powder Manufacturing Company, then owned by E. I. Dupont de Nemours and Company of Delaware, had been driven out of the Leeds district because of “frequent, violent explosions. The plant was closed down when the city limits of Kansas City were extended to take in Leeds,” and a location was sought in Wyandotte County, Kan. In 1916, a 40-acre tract in South Park, Johnson County, Kan., was purchased from John Noll for the company’s powder magazine.
Still, in 1919, an article mentioned the company’s magazine at Holmes Park as remaining active. And, in 1921, four men were killed in an explosion at Holmes Park. One man, 21-year-old Lou Stanbeck, died the next day. The Holmes Park company was still a thriving venture in a 1926 write up about the community. In fact, a lawsuit was settled that year “sparked” from an accident that had happened in 1924.
David W. Jackson is archives and education director of the Jackson County Historical Society.