The Dempseytown Nitro Explosion of January 1930

Nitroglycerin was more dangerous than words can describe. Many people lost their lives to the volatile substance responsible for shooting oil wells across the Oil Region. The purpose of shooting a well was to fracture the rock and cause oil to flow. Today, this procedure is completed mostly with hydraulic fracturing.

PSM_V56_D0462_Shooting_an_oil_well_with_nitroglycerin Popular Science Monthly 1899-1900
“Shooting a well with nitroglycerin” Source: Popular Science Monthly, 1899-1900. Public Domain.

Hauling nitroglycerin to its destination caused a person to take their life into their own hands. The first big nitro explosion in Titusville occurred on December 16, 1869 at the Roberts Torpedo Factory when 1,500 pounds of gunpowder and 4,000 pounds of nitroglycerin exploded, killing one person and heavily damaging Spring and Franklin Streets. Working with nitroglycerin was a job that local man Worthy Sullivan did not survive on his forty-second birthday.

On January 27, 1930, Worthy Sullivan prepared his nitro load for a trip from the Titusville area to Ten Mile Bottom, just south of Oil City. He worked for the A. Cupler Jr. Torpedo Company whose namesake, Adam Cupler Jr., was killed by a nitro explosion on October 12, 1903.

That fateful day, Sullivan was carrying fifty quarts of nitro that were meant to be used to shoot a well at the Perry Farm. Packed in tightly so they wouldn’t move, Sullivan made sure all the cans were securely in place before departing.

Shortly before his trip, the snow had been fierce. Drifts were piled up across the pavement which required many travelers to detour through fields. The decision to detour ultimately cost Sullivan his life. Between Cherrytree and Dempseytown, specifically at Lamey Church via Fosters Corners, Worthy Sullivan began driving over a frozen field. As he approached the home of Clarence Seyler and family, Sullivan could not tell that underneath the snow, the field had turned into plowed furrows. Before he could change his trajectory, the nitroglycerin was jostled by a 7-inch-high raised furrow and the entire load exploded.

The blast created a 5-foot deep hole in the ground and rocked the nearby house on its foundation. Every window in the house was shattered, all the doors were blown in, all the dishes in the house were broken, furniture overturned, and the occupants were thrown to the floor. Mrs. Seyler suffered cuts on her face from the shattering glass and her daughter, Mrs. Homer Flockerzi was cut on her forehead by a falling shelf. Flockerzi’s infant child narrowly escaped injury when a stove overturned and framed pictures fell off the walls around him. In the cellar, Virgil Bowersock, Seyler’s son, was thrown to the floor and all the canned food crashed around him. Slowly, the family emerged from the house to figure out what happened.

Worthy Sullivan Newspaper Headline 1.28.1930
Titusville Herald headline 1.28.1930.

The area surrounding the house was nearly unrecognizable. There was a hole torn in the barn roof, electrical and telephone wires were hanging from their poles, and parts of what was the Dodge nitro truck strewn in a fifty foot radius. Someone who heard the blast was able to notify the Oil City police and the Salvation Army who both sent vehicles to the scene to assist. Eventually, Sullivan was identified by one of his boots which was recovered near the barn.

Worthy Sullivan was the son of John and Hattie Prather Sullivan. He was born in Troy Township on January 27, 1888. Described as having grey eyes and dark brown hair, he served overseas in World War I in the 80th division 314th artillery from 1918 to 1919. He was married in September 1923 to Hazel Hooker of Hydetown. The family stayed in the area and had two children, John and Ruth. While Sullivan was on his nitro transport, his family was home making a cake for his birthday celebration. At one point, the electric went out and Hazel and the children finished the cake by hand. Unbeknownst to them was the horrible cause of the power outage.

After Worthy’s death, Hazel worked for the Department of Labor for fifteen years. Members of John’s and Ruth’s families still live locally today and sometimes tell family stories of their departed loved one. We appreciate his family members sharing his story with us for this article and reminding us of the dangerous lives our forebears lived in the Oil Region of Pennsylvania.

Sources: Titusville Herald 1/28/1930, 7/22/1995, 3/31/1997, 6/14/1965; Interview with Sue Stewart

7 thoughts on “The Dempseytown Nitro Explosion of January 1930

  1. English

    I remember watching at a well site when nitro glycerine was used to bring in a well. Needless to say my Dad and brothers stayed quite a distance from the activity. I must have been 10 years old and remember when the shot was fired the tremendous amount of dirt, water etc that came out of the well

    Jerr English

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Edwars Myers

    I remember my dad and great uncle talking about the two of them used to haul this. Only one truck was loaded with nitro and the other with glycerin. I believe it was in the late 40’s or early 50’s. they were not to travel together but did anyway!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Jean Ann Moffett

    The house that was damaged belonged to my Great Grandmother, Mrs. Laura Seyler. Mrs. Homer FLOCKERZI was my Grandmother, the young child was my Dad, and Virgil Bowersox was my great uncle. Thank you for the article.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jessica Hilburn

      I’m not sure if it is still standing, but there have been some comments that it was their family home so someone out there should know if it is still in existence!


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