This section is from "Scientific American Supplement Volumes 275, 286, 288, 299, 303, 312, 315, 324, 344 and 358". Also available from Amazon: Scientific American Reference Book.
Although the accident in the tunnel in process of construction at Union Hill by the New York, Ontario, and Western Railroad Company, which took place on Tuesday afternoon, was happily attended with no loss of life or serious injuries to the men employed in the shaft, it reads a new lesson as to the firing of charges of powder by electricity, and one that should be carefully noted by railway and civil engineers, and even by the torpedo service of the United States. The exact cause of the explosion has scarcely been fully and accurately set forth by the various reports of the affair.
It appears that the wires usually employed lo supply the electric lamps in the excavation were used for the purpose of firing the charges, being disconnected from the electric light system for the moment and connected with the explosives. As a rule, six charges were fired together, those of the afternoon relay of men being exploded at very regular hours--the last usually at 5:45 P.M. There were only sixteen men in the shaft, and the work of connecting the wires had commenced, when the flash of lightning that occurred at 5:42 P.M., suddenly charged the conductors and produced the explosion.
There were two flashes of lightning between the hours of 5 and 6 o'clock Tuesday afternoon, the first taking place at 5:23, and the second nineteen minutes later. The former, according to testimony elicited by our reporter, simply caused a slight perturbation of the lights in the tunnel, but did not extinguish them. Five minutes later the work of disconnection and reconnection began, but only two of the six charges were ready for the pressure of the button when the last flash interrupted the proceedings. The fact that the time of the explosion corresponded to the second with that of the aerial electrical discharge furnishes indubitable evidence that the accident was not caused by any carelessness on the part the electrician in charge, and exonerates all parties from blame. At the same time it should be remembered by engineers in of such work that atmospheric electricity cannot be altogether disregarded in such cases, and that as a source of accident it may at any time prove dangerous. The concurrence of circumstances on Tuesday was particularly fortunate. In the first instance only two of the six charges had been connected with the firing battery, and in the second the rock in which the charges were inserted was so peculiarly soft and porous as to deaden the force of the eight pounds of giant powder thus prematurely set off. Had the cartridges been set in the harder and more solid rock of the east heading, instead of the west, and the explosion taken place there, probably not a man in the shaft would have escaped destruction. The lesson to engineers is one of no less importance than if the whole number of men had been killed, and should lead to the exercise of great care and precaution at times when the air is charged with electrical energy.--New York Times.