Across the Stream (and through the woods…) to gunpowder mills we go.

Today’s interesting but (largely) useless fact of note comes to us courtesy of Jack Kelly’s Gunpowder: Alchemy, Bombards & Pyrotechnics: the History of the Explosive that Changed the World.*

The Du Pont gunpowder works in Delaware (est. 1802) were constructed on the banks of the Brandywine River for two important reasons.  First, because the powder grinders were operated by water-driven milling technology (high-tech at the time).  Second, because of the unusual construction of the buildings themselves.  They were made of stone on three sides, but the wall facing the river was constructed of wood and other flimsy materials.  An explosion during the corning (milling) process would blow out the fourth wall and roof, leaving the heavy stone walls undamaged.  Since this wall faced the river, most of the explosive force was directed over the water, minimizing collateral damage.

This not only helped reduce the rebuilding cost after an explosion, but also created a relative “safe zone” on three sides of the buildings.  (Eating lunch by the river was probably not recommended.) The construction didn’t help anyone working in the building at the time, but probably did save lives by redirecting the explosive force away from those in other parts of the factory grounds.

The Du Pont works are not only a good example of ingenious engineering, but also the origin of the phrase “going across the creek” (later adapted as “gone across the river”) as a euphemism for dying in an accident.  I’d heard the expression before reading the book, and just assumed the expression was a reference to the River Styx of Greek myth.

All things considered, I like this explanation better. It’s a bit more … visual.

I also like the strong implication that even in the 1800s, workers in dangerous professions were not without a sense of humor.  Then again, if you spend your days working with something that’s likely to blow your head off, humor is probably a requirement.

*If you haven’t read the book: excellent read, highly recommended.