On July 2, 1918, a terrible explosion at a munitions factory outside Syracuse, New York claimed the lives of more than 50 workers, injuring dozens more. 15 men were incinerated beyond recognition and over 20 reported missing and presumed dead. Today, Split Rock Quarry is largely abandoned, taken over by hikers, urban explorers, curiosity seekers, and partiers. Evidence of late night excursions abound, and some of these nocturnal visitors have brought back stories of strange sights and sounds around the old rock crusher. Dark, graffiti covered tunnels excite the imagination. This sinister reputation led the site to be featured on the Travel Channel’s Destination Fear in October 2012.
Split Rock Quarry was originally built by the Solvay Process Company, which was founded in 1880 by Belgian chemists Ernest and Alfred Solvay, American engineer William B. Cogswell, and businessman Rowland Hazard II. The Solvay Process Company manufactured soda ash (sodium carbonate) through the Solvay Process, which combines salt brine and limestone. The limestone was quarried at Split Rock near Onondaga, New York and pulverized in a giant rock crusher. The Solvay Process Company was absorbed by Allied Chemical and Dye Corporation in 1920, but remained a major employer in central New York until it ceased operation in 1985. During World War I, the company was involved in making TNT for munitions for the U.S. government.
At 8:40pm on July 2, 1918, a fire broke out at the munitions factory near Split Rock Quarry. Employees tried to contain the blaze, but at around 9:30pm a massive explosion ripped through the plant, throwing grown men like rag dolls for hundreds of feet in every direction. The blast and fireball could be seen for miles. The next day, workers pulled charred body parts out of the ruins. Alongside the deaths, the explosion caused approximately $1,000,000 in property damage, but the company vowed to rebuild and carry on producing munitions for the war effort.
The fire is believed to have started in the nitrofier in Plant No. 1, which contained 2,200 pound of toluol. Toluol is a colorless, water-insoluble liquid used as an industrial feedstock and solvent, and a nitrofier treats or combines chemicals with nitrogen or its compounds. The first step in the process of making TNT is to nitrate toluene with a mixture of sulfuric and nitric acid to produce mononitrotoluene (MNT). At some point in the process, the toluol becomes hot enough to explode.
Burton J. Hall, who was working in Plant No. 1 when the fire started, told the local newspaper, “There were but two nitrofiers in this building. I was working 2,200 pounds in my nitrofier. It was in the first stage. There was but one other nitrofier in the plant and the toluol there had not reached the stage where it would explode. At 8:40, while I was at my place taking the temperature somebody shouted: ‘Get out [of here].’ Black smoke was then coming from the opening from downstairs… We were on the top floor of No. 1 and made a rush out.”
Mrs. Nellie Martin was at her kitchen window when the fire started. She believed workers had gotten the fire under control when she headed for bed. She told the newspaper, “I was leaning over the stove. Suddenly there was a great flash of light – for all the world like lightning right in front of me. It seemed just in front of me. That was all I knew, but it was terrible, that awful light. I wasn’t burned. The force of the explosion threw me backward.”
Since its closure, some visitors have reported strange encounters in the abandoned quarry at night, and it has become a popular destination for paranormal investigation. Eyewitnesses reported strange lights and glowing green and yellow apparitions. In 2009, a group called the Ghost Finders Association of Central New York claimed to obtain photographic evidence of the haunting. The Syracuse Post-Standard reported, “Corey Vander Sluis of Onondaga, a co-founder of the group, says the photo at the top of this story shows a free-floating white apparition to the left of co-founder Stephan Morasco, whose back is to the camera.” Morasco asked his teammate to take the picture after feeling “tingling and numbness.” Another photo appeared to show a glowing streak emanating from a team member’s wrist just after his wristband “snapped” on its own accord.
Even without these tales, Split Rock Quarry is a very interesting place to visit. With its peaceful setting, it is easy to forget the tragedy that occurred there nearly a century ago. Though many have left garbage and graffiti at the site, we encourage our readers to be respectful when visiting. This was, after all, the final resting place over over 50 men. Though they were not killed in battle, their service to this country and to the war effort was just as important as the soldiers fighting at the front lines. Explore the site if you dare, but take only pictures and leave only footprints.