Blasts from the Past: Unraveling Our Families’ Explosive Histories

The adage “if you play with dynamite, you’re bound to get blown up” resonates deeply within both my wife’s and my family histories, each marked by a harrowing tale of dynamite. The intriguing part? These incidents occurred within a few years and few miles from each other, despite my wife being a Southern Peach and me, a Yankee Towner.

In Bellows Falls, Vermont, a dam stretches across the Connecticut River. For about a century, this dam has been a vital source of power for both the state of VT and NH. On the morning of February 18, 1928, a tragic event unfolded at this site. Michael O’Brien, aged 67 and the great-great-grandfather of my wife, Kathy, was employed by Sherman’s Power Construction Company. His role? Keeper of the dynamite house. That fateful morning, at 8:15 AM, William and Fred Steele, two brothers, were dispatched to collect dynamite from Michael. Shortly after they entered the small building, a catastrophic explosion occurred. The company, in a bid for safety, stored only enough dynamite for a day’s work. Yet, on that chilly February day, this amounted to 250 pounds. The blast obliterated the wooden roof of the building, leaving the stone walls barely standing. The three men were tragically killed, and numerous others injured. The explosion was so intense that it resulted in Michael O’Brien receiving two death certificates, one from Vermont and another from New Hampshire. The reason? The remains of the three men were scattered across both sides of the river, covering a quarter-mile area along the Connecticut River.

Nearly eight years later, on February 6, 1936, a mere 16 miles away from the Bellows Falls dam, another dynamite-related incident shattered the peace of Vermont. At 9:30 AM, in a gravel pit at the intersection of French Meadow and Chester Roads in Springfield, Vermont, Harold Pelkey, an experienced powder man, sought refuge from the cold in Harry Stern’s truck cab. Harold, with five years of experience in handling dynamite, brought several fuses into the cab. As he unwrapped them, they detonated. The explosion sent the truck’s roof soaring 30 feet and Harold 10 feet into the air. The aftermath was gruesome: Harold lost his left arm, all but the pinkie on his right hand, was initially blinded in both eyes, but regained partial site in one, and suffered severe facial injuries. His brother, Alfred, the foreman, rushed him to the Springfield hospital. Miraculously, Harold survived, but his life was irrevocably altered.

Relationship between Dennis Partridge and Harold Pelkey

Harold’s connection to me is through a complex web of familial ties. His parents, John Pelkey and Ada Blanchard, had a son, Frank Clifford Pelkey, who married Thelma Illa Partridge, my half-great-aunt and granddaughter of Elnora Betsey Williams. Elnora, through a different marriage, is my second great-grandmother. Ada Blanchard, after marrying Arthur Cummings Partridge, my great-granduncle, became a stepmother to the Pelkey children. To add to the complexity, Elnora’s daughter through her first marriage, Nora Olive Rich, married Fred Partridge, my great-grandfather, and later Clarence Arthur Partridge, his brother, both younger brothers of Arthur Cummings Partridge. Thelma was born to Clarence and Nora. Confusing, isn’t it? Ancestry puts it this way, Harold Pelkey is the stepson of my great-granduncle, Arthur Cummings Partridge.

Diagram of my relationship to Harold Pelkey
Diagram of my relationship to Harold Pelkey

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