In 1911, the city of Chehalis, Washington was expanding as immigrants from Europe came out west looking for opportunities to work. At the time, logging was Washington’s dominant industry. After cutting down the trees, loggers used dynamite to remove stumps from the clear-cut fields so the land could be farmed. Dynamite was essential in the coal mining industry as well.
With public concern growing over workplace safety, Washington’s legislature enacted labor laws the same year, but they were poorly enforced. Just 8 months after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York, Washington would face its own workplace tragedy.
The Imperial Powder Company in Chehalis was one of many businesses working to supply dynamite to the booming logging and mining industries. Like companies in other labor-intensive industries, Imperial employed teens from immigrant families. These teens worked long hours in unsafe conditions. Labor unions fought an uphill battle for standards that seem excessive when compared to today’s work culture; a 60-hour workweek (10 hours a day, 6 days a week), the right to be paid in dollars instead of company scrip, and safer workplace conditions.
Town of Chehalis, Washington in the early 1900s.
Photo: Washington State Historical Society
Tragedy struck in the factory’s packaging room on November 1, 1911. An electrician noticed a “blue flame” near a paraffin tank and shouted to alert other workers. In an instant, hundreds of pounds of powder dust in the packaging room ignited. Eight of the 11 girls in the packaging room died before they could even run to the door. Those who perished were Ethel Tharp, age 20; Tillie Rosback, 18; Ethel Henry, 18; Sadie Westfall, 16; Bertha Hagle, 16; Eva Gilmore, 16; Vera Mulford, 14; and Bertha Crown, 14.
The entire community was in shock. The next day, a coroner’s inquest jury was formed to investigate. A jury of town leaders (many whom helped bring the Imperial plant to town) declared the fire accidental and cleared the company of blame. While the cause was not established, workers and supervisors were known to smoke near the packaging room. This decision upset citizens and put pressure on government to enforce existing labor laws. Around the same time, assigning risk classes for workers’ compensation was introduced, adjusting insurance premiums based on injury rates in a given occupation.
The Imperial factory reopened two months after the explosion in January 1912. Six months later, another explosion injured three workers.
Although this tragedy altered the course of labor law, it was largely forgotten until a 2007 newspaper column told the story of the explosion. An effort to build a memorial began, which was unveiled on November 1, 2011, nearly 100 years to the day after the explosion.
In the previous weeks leading to Labor Day on September 2, we examined five historical cases of unsafe working conditions and outright tragedies that helped contribute to improvements in workplace safety we all benefit from today. There are so many more examples of workplace tragedies, each one having an impact on workplace safety awareness and legislation over the years. Our goal at L&I is to make sure, that every day, every Washington worker that goes to work comes home safe.