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When news of the repeal of Britain’s Stamp Act arrived in Hartford in April of 1766, Connecticut Colony’s leaders were overjoyed. They ordered a day of celebrations to be held on 23 May that would include fireworks, the ringing of bells, and blasts from the town's cannons. The organizers secured the second floor of the town’s brick schoolhouse, close to the site where the General Assembly met in Hartford (where the 1792 Old State House sits today), as the location for the fireworks preparations.
On the day of the celebration, local militia men used the main floor of the schoolhouse, the site of the magazine, to distribute powder for the festivities that would follow. Many of their boys played in front of the building as they waited for their fathers inside. In the confusion that followed, no one could remember exactly what happened. But the entire city was shaken by the sound of an explosion that reduced the building to rubble and left bodies strewn about the grounds.
To learn more about what took place and how Hartford responded to this tragedy, explore the pages to the right.
In the early afternoon of Thursday, March 2, 1854, a Mr. Ashe, the head painter of the Fales & Gray Car Factory, was standing on the bank of the Little River, south of the factory located on Potter Street. Gazing back on the factory, Ashe attempted to commit to canvas a landscape that could be replicated on the railway cars produced by his employer. What he saw next defied any attempt at illustration.
Just as he started to sketch, he later remembered, a "shock came, and the building trembled before him, then fell with an awful crash." Terrified, Ashe never completed the sketch. Although he was a talented artist, he could "hardly impress upon canvas the vivid imagery or terrible reality rather, that burst out before him in that shock of destruction and death.”
What Mr. Ashe saw was the explosion of the Fales & Gray factory, which killed nineteen of the company's three -hundred workers instantly and severely wounded twenty-three others. Every building on the property was “shivered to atoms” and pieces of the factory’s steam boiler were found as far afield as two-hundred feet away.
Indeed, Mr. Ashe, or any artist for that matter, might have felt unequipped to represent the scene. Instead, the city’s worst disaster in almost 100 years was etched into memory using photography. The resulting photographs, believed to be some of the first photographs ever taken of Hartford, show the remains of the factory and focus on the devastation of Potter Street.
Terrible as the physical devastation was, public remarks spawned by the explosion printed in newspapers and preached from pulpits quickly moved beyond the physical destruction of the factory site.
Who was at fault for the explosion? How should the city respond? Most importantly for some, what might all of this suffering mean? These were the questions that haunted Hartford in the days following the blast.
Check out the following pages to explore the many different ways that people answered these questions and the ways in which people coped with the disaster.