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In the western side of Indiana, just northeast of Terre Haute, several sleepy hamlets exist with names such as Coal Bluff, Carbon, and Diamond – communities whose designations reflect a bygone era of Hoosier mining. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, coal was extensively excavated from both surface and underground mines that tapped a large vein which ran south from southern Vermillion and Parke counties to the Ohio River. One of those towns with an explosive history is Fontanet.
Miners, then as now, required an enormous amount of blasting powder to carve tunnels and dislodge the coal for collection. The very nature of gunpowder, as you can imagine, didn’t lend itself well to transportation across long distances, so it was often manufactured at close proximity to a concentrated mining area.
In Vigo County, the Laflin and Rand Power Company, a subsidiary of the DuPont Powder Company, operated a mill in the village of Fontanet. The immediate area had several mines in operation under the direction of the Coal Bluff Mining Company, the Union Mining Company, and the Western Indiana Mining Company.
Fontanet grew to relative prosperity as a mining settlement. Founded originally in 1870 as Fountain Station, the hamlet grew around a post office with the same name. When mining arrived, the settlement grew rapidly to include as many as 300 miners, dozens of houses, several businesses, and a general store. By 1881, both the post office and town became known as just Fontanet.
On October 15 in 1907, at precisely 9:08 AM, Fontanet was rocked by an explosion at the powder mill. Barbara Quigley of the Indiana Historical Society wrote that the “powder mill office, where superintendent Arthur Brown Monahan Jr. was meeting with T.T. Kellum, a DuPont representative from Wilmington, Delaware, was engulfed in flames, killing the two men. A huge tree was uprooted and landed on Monahan’s house, killing his wife and nice.”
At about 9:40 AM, a second explosion occurred at the mill. Quigley wrote that “the explosion demolished businesses, churches, and homes, uprooted trees, and ignited fires.” This explosion caused a massive secondary detonation of 31,000 kegs of dynamite, which leveled Fontanet. Altogether, 38 people perished in the disaster and the explosion was felt all over Indiana. According to Quigley:
Coal Bluff saw several residences and a school detached from their foundations. Windows were broken in Terre Haute, Brazil, Carbon, Rockville, and Bridgeton. In Bloomington, a recitation was interrupted at the university when the building in which it was being held moved, leaving cracked walls and startling those present. Seismic instruments 215 miles away in St. Mary’s, Ohio, recorded the explosion and shock waves were felt as far away as Seymour, Indianapolis, and Cincinnati (see Quigley’s full IHS rundown here).
The disaster made the front page of many newspapers. The Indianapolis Star ran with “FONTANET WRECKED BY POWDER: SCORES HURLED TO DEATH.” The Brazil Daily Times reported that “fully fifteen hundred people are homeless, and no less than one thousand more or less injured. Over five hundred homes, businesses, houses, churches, etc., are wrecked and every person is covered with either their own blood or that of the injured they have been caring for.” The information in the latter is a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the idea – mass hysteria, death, and destruction.
Doctors, volunteers, and law enforcement from Terre Haute, Indianapolis, and several other communities rallied to help the survivors. Indiana’s Governor Frank Hanly deployed the National Guard to protect residents throughout the rest of that October.
DuPont’s vice president, Alfred DuPont, paid for everyone’s funeral expenses and rebuilt much of Fontanet, on his own dime, within a year. The company was much maligned by the survivors, primarily because it was determined that the explosion was likely caused by sparks from a faulty machine.
Throughout the early 20th century, the mines in west-central Indiana closed one by one and Fontanet regressed into a sleepy hamlet. Today, the community hosts an Annual Fontanet Bean Dinner Festival, “a tradition stemming from a Civil War veterans’ picnic first held in 1890. The festival was originally held on land near the DuPont Powder Mill. After the mill exploded in 1907, the picnic was moved to the site known as Holloway Grove.”
If you find yourself in Vigo County later this summer, take a detour through Fontanent, stop to eat and drink at the Fontanet Tavern, and imagine the explosion that rocked the state of Indiana 112 years ago. The Fontanet Tavern is currently closed until July due to COVID-19. Call ahead to (812) 877-2229 before visiting.