by George Cole
A Confederate gun powder mill located in Waxahachie was owned and operated by William Rowen and his junior partner, Tillman Patterson. The mill complex was located on property bordered by McMillan and North Rogers Streets. It was totally destroyed in the late afternoon of April 29, 1863, after a series of mysterious explosions ignited the gun powder and ripped the mill apart.
The Waxahachie powder mill was established by the Confederate government in Austin in late 1862 or early 1863 and operated only a few months. Rowen had contracted with military officials in Austin with the understanding that the state of Texas would provide him all the sulfur and saltpeter necessary to make gun powder on the halves.
Five men operated the powder mill but only three workers were working in the powder mill at the time of the explosions and resultant conflagration. All three were severely burned. William Rowen and Joshua G. Phillips, his first assistant, died as a result of their burns. David C. Nance, apprentice powder maker from the DeSoto area, survived but suffered serious burns on his hands, arms and body.
Nance was a Confederate soldier in Parsons’ Rangers, Company E, who had been badly wounded during the Battle of Cache River in Arkansas and ultimately furloughed to return home to recuperate from his wounds. After recovering, he was assigned to work at the new Waxahachie gun powder mill. Rowen and Phillips were also local men who had moved to Texas during the1850s and resided in the Waxahachie, Ellis County area. During that time, Waxahachie was not the only settlement in Ellis County. However, it was the county seat and the major town. During the War Between the States Waxahachie’s status increased as it remained the Confederate government center for the county.
The standard powder mill architecture was perfected in Europe in the 19th Century and the Waxahachie powder mill probably resembled the European model. The Waxahachie complex consisted of an open-hearth furnace shed for making charcoal and heating an iron cauldron in which the potassium nitrate was purified and processed. Another building housed the milling machinery and near it the powder house. A large mule barn formed one of the rear walls and a separate barracks-like bath house was nearby. The mill yard was divided into two sections separated by a brick firewall to shield the powder house in the event of an explosion. The complex was overshadowed by a tall water tower and adjacent cistern near the only well that provided water for drinking, bathing and other uses during the powder making process.
A powder mill the size of the one at Waxahachie normally employed eight workers, but at the time of the explosion had only five. Some accounts indicate that Jonathan Phillips,
brother of Joshua Phillips, also worked at the powder mill but most reports do not include him as an employee. Because of the Confederate Army’s need for soldiers to fight on the front lines, men to work at the mill were in short supply. In addition, the work at the mill was backbreaking, dirty and dangerous and few men wanted to work there.
Joshua Phillips was the only “experienced powderman” to be found in the area and he willingly shared his knowledge about the workings of a powder mill with his fellow workers. Phillips supervised the general work of the crew involved in the milling and drying process. Stephen Mulkey was the crew chemist who processed the saltpeter (potassium nitrate) into a pure white crystal form suitable for mixing with the ground charcoal and sulfur to make the gun powder.
The chemical formula for gun powder was: 15 parts charcoal; 10 parts sulfur; and 75 parts potassium nitrate (saltpeter). In actuality, the saltpeter was the gun powder and the charcoal was added to make it burn. The sulfur merely made the mixture (mill cake) more reliable. These three ingredients were harmless as long as they were kept separate, but mixed together they became highly explosive. The saltpeter, which was always in short supply, was shipped by the Confederate Government to Waxahachie from South Texas.
David Nance operated the roller milling machinery that consisted of a tread wheel pulled by ten small mules. The tread wheel pulled ten milling mortars that ground three ingredients. The first step in the process was to grind the charcoal and sulfur into a gray compound called mash. The milling machinery was also used to crush the pure saltpeter crystals into a fine white powder. The mash and saltpeter were then mixed with water to form a wet mill cake. The mill cake was then dried and again ground in the milling machinery to form grains of black gun powder.
Tillman Patterson was responsible for the glazing and pressing process which was the final step in the gun powder making process. The blistering/glazing phase of the process was designed to remove all moisture from the powder, fuse the sulfur and saltpeter, and make the mixture more moisture resistant. Ultimately, the mill cake would be ground into grains of black gun powder. The Waxahachie powder mill and other Southern powder mills used solar power or other means of artificial heat because they generally lacked sophisticated equipment to heat the powder to high temperatures and properly complete the drying process. Consequently, the gun powder thus produced was subject to either retaining or absorbing moisture causing it to possibly not fire in battle.
Other aspects of the gun powder making process and overall operation of the powder mill complex were handled by William Rowen. At the time of the explosion, there were only 800 pounds of the powder mixture (mill cake) in the process of manufacture in the milling area. The finished product (black gun powder) was packed in wooden kegs and stored in the adjacent powder house until it could be shipped to market and Confederate armories. Fortunately for the town, the thick brick walls of the powder house protected and prevented the ignition of the eight or ten thousand pounds of kegged gun powder stored there.
The exact cause of the explosion and conflagration is not known. However, there are several theories regarding its cause. One theory is that a male stranger and also a man and his wife had been seen in town just prior to the explosion and that they were Northern Abolitionist sympathizers or spies who were sent to destroy the powder mill. Another more plausible theory is that David Nance (who was operating the milling mortars as they crushed and mixed the charcoal, sulfur and saltpeter) may have not been experienced enough to note the condition of the volatile powder mixture. The powder mixture could have been ignited if the mill cake became too dry or remained in the mortars too long causing the rotating cylinders to push the mixture rather than roll over it. If a roller scraped on a mortar bed and created a spark, the mixture in the mortar could ignite. Unknown to David Nance, this is probably what happened leading to the initial explosion. Subsequent explosions, set off by flying sparks from the first, then could have ignited the dust generated by the rollers, the mixture in the other mortars and finally all of the accumulate mill cake ready for the next stage of manufacture.
Most persons residing in Waxahachie were not familiar with the process for making gun powder. However, they were fully aware of the potential danger that the powder works presence presented to the town. Many opined that it was just a matter of time before the powder mill would blow up and destroy the town. As fate would have it, their prognostication was correct and after approximately six months of operation the Waxahachie gun powder mill came to a violent end during the afternoon of April 29, 1863. The powder mill was so completely destroyed it was never rebuilt.
Today, there is a 1936 Centennial Texas Historical Commission Marker at the approximate site of the powder mill complex located at 306 North Rogers Street. Although the marker was placed there in 1936 by the Texas Historical Commission, few people today know of its existence and the story of its significance.