J. H. Webber, A Delivery Boy For W. T. Younger, Sees Great Flash 8 Miles Away-Powder Magazine
From the 1938 centennial edition of The Times-Register
Just about fifty years ago, or to be more exact, on Saturday, October 6, 1888, around 7:30 in the evening, the people of Roanoke County and those residing in the young City of Roanoke were much alarmed by an explosion that rocked the community for miles around.
The sharp explosion was accompanied by a flash of light that illuminated every nook and cranny of the county. The detonation has been described by those hearing it as resembling the firing of thousands of cannons simultaneously. It was heard from one end of the county to the other. Roanoke was then four years old with a population of some ten or twelve thousand people.
The business of the growing city centered about Jefferson Street and Salem Avenue. The force of the shock was distinctly felt by pedestrians on the streets while buildings rocked, and windows were shattered on the two streets named. The people were panic stricken and rushed from their homes to the business center to ascertain just what had happened. The most popular conjecture was that an earthquake had occurred in this vicinity. Another report that gained prominence was to the effect that the Crozier iron furnace had blown up, and people from all sections of the city hurried down to the banks of Tinker Creek only to find the rumor to be false.
The only method of transportation in Roanoke was by private conveyance, by horseback or in a limited district by street cars. There were but a few telephones in use at the time and the people who had phones in their offices and homes were as much in the dark as the excited populace on the streets. People residing in Salem who heard the terrific explosion were as excited over the event as those who lived in and around Roanoke. The first information of a definite character to reach Salem was conveyed late in the night to the county seat by the late “Al” Fink who was engaged in the manufacture of cigars, and who operated a cigar stand on Salem Ave. Mr. Fink lived in Salem and drove his horse and buggy to and from his place of business daily. It was near midnight before he reached home and found a number of people gathered in the drug store discussing the event and endeavoring to arrive at some reasonable conclusion as to what had really happened.
Considerable time elapsed before the people of Roanoke were told what had really taken place. A magazine stored with thousands of pounds of blasting powder and dynamite located near the Franklin Road bridge, in close proximity to the present site of the Winston-Salem branch of the Norfolk & Western, for some reason, never positively determined, had exploded.
It was positively determined however that a man had been killed, but just who the unfortunate individual was, has never been known. A small portion of a human hand was found the next day and the heel of a shoe with fragments of flesh adhering to the inside, was also picked up. Among other things found in the vicinity was the cylinder of a revolver and several hundred feet from the scene of the explosion a mutilated dime was found buried in a fence post. Fences, bushes and trees within a radius of 200 yards were completely destroyed. Where the powder house stood an excavation as large as the foundation for a good-sized house was blown out to the depth of ten or twelve feet.
The day following the catastrophe thousands of people visited the scene and there was not an inch of ground for several hundred feet around that was not carefully gone over in search of clues as to what might have caused the explosion, and at the time it was generally conceded that a young man named Brown who resided in the vicinity of Starkey, and who afterwards was found to be missing, was the unfortunate man who had lost his life.
It was ascertained that he had been in Roanoke during the day and people who knew him reported that he had left late that day walking towards his home. It was also stated that he was known to possess a revolver. The finding of a revolver cylinder at or near the scene the next day led many to believe that he had possibly fired a shot into the building with the resultant explosion that cost him his life.
Still Remember Incident
While numerous citizens of Roanoke who have resided in the community for more than fifty years remember in a vague way the incident, they are uncertain as to detail, but the facts enumerated here are vouched for by two well-known citizens, Joseph H. Webber and J. C. Humphries of a local drug firm. Both men vividly recall their experiences, even down to the date, the hour and almost the minute at which the explosion occurred. At the time, Mr. Humphries, a mere youth of fourteen, was spending the night in Roanoke at the old Continental Hotel, while enroute to his home in Christiansburg from a visit to relatives in Rockbridge County. He was in one of the upper rooms of the hotel, fronting Norfolk Avenue, when it seemed the building was being destroyed. Pictures on the walls were shaken down, and the dresser and table in the room put on a jig performance. The crash of broken windows along Jefferson Street could be plainly heard. He declares he lost no time in getting out of the hotel and getting his feet on terra firma. He found the streets, especially at Salem Avenue and Jefferson Street filled with excited people, all of whom were endeavoring to find some plausible answer to what had just happened. Mr. Humphries left the following morning for his home in Christiansburg.
“Double Quick Time”
Mr. Webber during the previous year had worked on the Wertz farm a mile or so to the south, and almost daily had to pass the powder magazine. A few weeks prior to the explosion he had accepted a position in Younger’s drug store at Salem, and on this particular night, had just made a delivery of medicine to the home of the late Rev. D. B. Strouse, and was returning to the store, when, without warning the whole world about him became so light that he could easily have seen a pin on the street. The light flash was followed by a report that shook the very earth under his feet. Asked if he was frightened, Joe answered: “Not much, but I made it back to Younger’s drug store in a little bit better than ‘double quick’ time.”
The following morning, he accompanied his father, Henry A. Webber, a deputy sheriff and several Salem citizens to the scene, the party driving down in a jersey wagon drawn by livery horses, the team being secured from a Salem livery firm. He recalls particularly the finding of the show heel with fragments of the human foot sticking to the inside. J. B. Fishburn of Roanoke was asked if he could recall what he was doing and where he happened to be on the night in question, and when told it was the occasion of the powder magazine explosion, he replied:
“I was keeping books in a store on Salem Avenue and after long hours of work, I realized I was very tired and sleepy. When that explosion occurred, and I heard the glass from the front windows crashing my first thought was of an earthquake.”
Mr. Fishburn visited the scene the next morning and his version, as he remembered the occasion, was substantially in agreement with the facts as above stated.
-Prepared by Lisa King