HELENWOOD, Tenn., April 16 — Helenwood, Tennessee, a little mountain town of about two hundred people, was put on the map four years ago when the Sewanee River Special, pride flyer of the Southern Railway, crashed on the mountainside and killed six persons. Helenwood was literally wiped off the map today when a terrific explosion of dynamite and blasting powder practically blasted the town to pieces. Six people were injured and scores of others escaped injury or death only by fleeing from town after being warned that the dynamite warehouse was on fire. The blast occurred at nine o’clock this morning when twenty cases of dynamite and two hundred kegs of blasting powder exploded following a fire in Webb’s mine supply store. The terrific impact smashed or almost demolished every building in town and jarred the countryside for miles around. The blast was heard as far away as Sunbright, twelve miles away, and window lights were shattered in houses two miles away.
The injured: Tom Daniels, J. Y. Phillips, Floyd Pemberton, Mrs. Louise Williams, Mrs. Martha Cross and baby, and Mrs. Ella Toomey. Scores of others were badly shaken up and shocked. The Southern Railway station, the school building, the Baptist and Presbyterian churches, and about forty dwelling houses were badly damaged and some entirely demolished. Two hundred people were left without a place to stay.
The following business houses were badly damaged or demolished: Geo. Webb Supply Store, R. H. Cecil general store, T. J. Petre store, Masonic Hall, and homes of the following were practically demolished; Maynard Honeycutt, Albert Phillips, John Phillips, Vernon Mays, Sally Keeton, Arthur Cross, Sam Smith, Herbert Wright, Mrs. L. Hammock, Lawrence West, Harold Judd, R. H. Cecil, home and store, John Toomey, Maggie Foster, George Webb, home and supply warehouse, Jane Phillips, Mrs. Williams. Numbers of other homes were badly damaged. Witnesses said that several people would have probably been killed if they had not been warned of the danger and fled out of town. R. H. Cecil, who owned and operated a store a short distance from the dynamite house, gave a good description of the explosion. Mr. Cecil said that Mrs. Jim O’Connel, wife of the station agent, rushed in to the store and cried that the home of Mrs. Burdett Keeton was in flames. Mrs. Keeton’s home was within ten feet of the dynamite warehouse, and Mrs. O’Connel and Cecil immediately sensed the danger and made the alarm. Cecil ran into his store and grabbed his shot gun and fired into the air several times and started shouting in a loud voice for everyone “to take to the woods,” the dynamite house is afire. Residents fled from town in droves. Mr. Cecil took about thirty people who were late getting away from their homes, to his tornado house where they went under the ground for protection. Mr. Cecil said he was at the entrance of the storm house when the blast came. He said that soon after the walls of the dwelling house fell over on the dynamite wareroom the powder flared up and then the explosion came and three buildings were thrown into the skies in tiny bits. Homes rocked and fell to the ground, telephone and telegraph wires were severed, the churches and school were blasted to pieces. Screams of those who had not been able to escape sufficient distance were heard for long distances, trees were stripped for hundreds of (continued from page 1 to page 4) feet around and window panes were shattered for miles. J. Y. Phillips, whose home was about two hundred feet from the dynamite warehouse, escaped and took his family to safety in time, but forgot his cow, which was tied up near the house. He went back for his cow and was in the act of taking her to safety when the blast came. Both Phillips and his cow were hurled to the ground. The cow jumped up and Phillips grabbed hold of her and both fled out of town even tho Phillips’ ribs were smashed.
There were sad scenes in Helenwood this afternoon, thru out the streets scores of people were sitting around shivering from the biting winds. Battered and smashed furniture and household goods were in piles near the smashed houses. Some women, and even men were crying. Many of them had no place to go and their homes were lost. On one corner sat a middle aged man reading a bible to a group of homeless people. On another corner was a mountain musician playing a guitar. Both attracted crowds. Large numbers of people were needing shelter and food but relief measures were set up soon. County administrator R. E. Arnhard and supervisor H. Q. Ramey, of the TERA were on the ground and James D. Burton of the Red Cross was there. All were making preparation for immediate relief. When the reporter asked citizens if it wasn’t a violation of the law to store high explosives in the middle of town, they answered, “Yes, I things it’s against the law, but nobody did anything about it.” Mrs. Ella Toomey, who was among the injured, is the sister of former state Senator John Toomey. It was understood that the Ex Senator was in a Knoxville hospital at the time of the tragedy.
(Source: The Morgan County News, 18 Apr 1935, p 1,4)
Oneida, Tenn., May 4th.—The Red Cross has spent $5300 in Scott County repairing homes wrecked in the Helenwood explosion, W. I. Jones, field representative, reported at a reorganization meeting of the Red Cross chapter. Work at Helenwood has been completed.
The chapter elected E. C. Terry, county chairman, John Lee West, vice-chairman, Sam A. Blair, secretary-treasurer, J. W. Baker, disaster chairman, E. M. Boyd, roll call chairman, C. W. Right, publicity chairman, Dr. Luke Foster, executive committee chairman.
(Source: The Morgan County News, 9 May 1935, p1)
See The Helenwood Explosion on April 5, 1935 from the FNB Chronicle
One of the small Keeton children, who lived in the little house adjacent to the warehouse, had climbed onto a cabinet and pulled it over. It fell onto the wood-burning stove, knocking the pipe down, thus catching the kitchen afire. Then it happened! The debris could be seen in the air for miles around — and such a loud noise and concussion! Kathleen West Robbins write a first-hand account of the explosion that is still talked about today.
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