Remembrances of the “good old days” soon will be on display in a community museum being built in Mt. Jackson.

But even in such an idyllic village, not all of the old days were good. Three such days — and the 11 men who lost their lives on them — also will be remembered there.

Blasts in 1940, 1947 and 1964 at explosives manufacturer American Cyanamid — which was located on Route 551 between Mt. Jackson and Edinburg — were responsible for the deaths. Among the victims of the most recent accident was 38-year-old Donald Schenker, whose son Rich has spearheaded the efforts to create a historical marker in the men’s memory.

“It has been 56 years since the last explosion,” said Schenker, who would later work at the plant as well. “It is past due to give these men, their families and Mt. Jackson recognition for their loss.”

His hope is that the younger generation will learn about American Cyanamid, and that the older generation will never forget it.

The plaque is expected to be erected before the end of the month near the cul-de-sac flagpole at the end of Ross Drive, behind the North Beaver Township complex at 861 Mt. Jackson Road. A museum office resembling a longtime, but now defunct, village gas station already is under construction there, and timbers from a disassembled 19th century barn wait nearby to be reconstituted as a museum/banquet hall.

A formal dedication ceremony for the plaque is planned for September or October.

American Cyanmid — more commonly known locally as “the powder plant” — operated from 1907 until 1972. Although it survived the two blasts of the 1940s, the explosions in which Schenker’s father and four others died, and which were felt at distant locations around the county, sealed the plant’s fate.

The explosions happened along “the jelly line,” where gelatin dynamite was manufactured. In addition to the loss of life, five buildings were leveled and a small locomotive used on the plant grounds was destroyed.

The crippled plant never fully rebounded, laying off most of its employees by the end of 1969 and shutting down for good in 1972.

Schenker had hoped to erect the plaque at the former plant site, part of which is now home to the gas-powered Hickory Run Power Plant. However, the owner of the remaining land declined to give permission.

That, though, is the only disappointment about his project.

He had more donors lined up than he needed to cover the cost of the nearly $1,400 marker, which was created by Lake Shore Industries of Erie.

“Within a week and a half, it was paid for,” he said. “It could have been paid for in four or five days. Some of them just wanted to foot the (entire cost). But I wanted to give everybody else a chance. I didn’t want to leave anyone out.”

The location was nailed down by Ken Shiderly, whose Mt. Jackson construction firm is working with Howard Strohecker and the Mt. Jackson Museum Foundation to build the museum buildings.

Shiderly, Schenker noted, was involved in the razing of some of the abandoned American Cyanamid buildings.

Moreover, Shiderly said, “I started hauling straw in there in 1957, ‘58 when I was in high school. They were packing all their dynamite in those wooden boxes in straw. I hauled straw in there every year from Clark’s Farms.”

Shiderly, who will install the plaque and pole on which it will sit, also has been working at Hickory Run, and said that once in a while, he’ll take a look at the overgrown American Cyanamid property.

“It was a big place,” he said. “People don’t realize how big it was because of the number of buildings they had back there, and they had to be spaced out. That was some plant.”

During World War II, when the plant was making explosives for the government, American Cyanamid employed around 350 people. About 250 still reported for work in the days leading up to the 1964 detonation.

Schenker is hoping that some of those former employees and their families will come to see the commemorative plaque once it’s up, but he admits it’s difficult to get the word out.

“There’s a group of us guys who meet once a month, the third Thursday, at Tanner’s,” he said. “At the 50th anniversary (observation in 2014), we didn’t know anything about this. So some of them know, some of them don’t know.

“It’s more or less the guys that worked there; we know. A lot of them are gone now. The list of them that I have that I call every month, I keep scratching one off every now and then.”

Once the plaque is up and dedicated, Schenker has one final project in mind. He wants to create a similar remembrance for the Burton Powder Works, a predecessor and eventual parent company of American Cyanamid that built a plant in the the Quakertown area of Mahoning Township in 1904.

That plant also experienced devastating explosions, in 1905, 1907, 1908 and 1912. A total of eight men lost their lives.

“I’ve tracked that all down, and I’ve got all the guys,” Schenker said. “They made black powder. That’s where it all started.”


Dan, editor, started with The News in 1978 and spent 10 years as a sports writer. He's been a general assignment reporter, copy editor, paginator and Lifestyle editor. He's a '78 Slippery Rock University graduate with a B.A. in English.

Recommended for you

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.