Chestertown Remembers: The Day the Defense Plant Exploded

On a sweltering July in 1954 a devastating explosion rocked Chestertown’s tranquility. Abruptly at 10:30 a.m. chaos erupted in the Eastern Shore town of 3,200 people when a blast jolted the county seat. Stunned people, many thinking the Russians had bombed the defense plant or the gas plant blew up, reacted. As they worried about the safety of friends and family, the telephone switchboard buzzed to life, many of the tiny signal bulbs lighting up all at once.  The fire siren joined in, wailing out a most urgent plea for aid. Terror stricken people called the operator to say a bomb had gone off or to inquire about the blast. In minutes, a second, larger detonation ripped through the humid morning air shattering windows downtown.

At Kent Manufacturing, a company that made detonators and military fireworks for the government, the accidental blast sent the roof of one building into the sky. Shrieking workers ran for their lives while fireworks shot aloft and burst in the air.  In town, the Associated Press reported that hundreds, including mothers wheeling baby carriages, fled across the Chester River bridge to safety in Queen Anne’s County.  Firefighters prepared to fight their way into the blazing ruins of the plant to rescue injured workers.

kent county explosion

The aging memories of the greatest calamity to ever occur in Kent County, an ordeal that affected the entire community, were shared in a Historical Society of Kent County program. With the Labor Day Weekend getting underway Friday evening over 100 people packed the Episcopal Church Hall to hear a panel tell their first-person stories. Lots of people from the audience joined in too.

Plenty of people will never forget this searing incident from that summer day 54-years ago. With the greatest clarity, it was clearly imprinted on a generation of Kent’s residents as remarks such as “I’ll never forget it” were frequently heard.  A jet plane had just flown over, causing us think an attack was underway, one lady remarked.   “We thought it was out 9/11.”

Several speakers struggled while retelling sad stories they’d rather forget, but will never be able to as aging emotional wounds remain as if they were yesterday.  They’ll never forget where they were or what they were doing at that moment their lives changes. The explosions, the sudden deaths, people fleeing to escape the danger, the rescue effort and the gruesome recovery, these are all things that are seared into their memory.

This was an outstanding program and the Society is undertaking a valuable preservation project by making sure this aspect of Kent’s past is permanently archived. The program was videotaped and will be added to the oral history collection of the Society.

kent county explosion 2

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