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The True Story of Mrs. Alford’s Nitroglycerin Factory

Mary Alford remains the only woman known to own a dynamite and nitroglycerin factory

Women dynamite workers at one of Alfred Nobel's factories in the 1880s. (Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

On this day in 1898, a man named Byron S. Alford died, leaving behind a (presumably) grieving widow, a nitroglycerin factory and the makings of a precedent-setting arrangement. The former wife of Byron Alford, Mary Alford, took over his business and made it thrive, becoming in the process the only known woman to own a dynamite and nitroglycerin factory.

Alford, who styled herself as Mrs. Byron Alford after the custom of the time, was well-suited to the task of running the factory which she and her husband had built. She was a trained accountant, writes the Penn Brad Oil Museum, who worked with her husband to build the dynamite factory in 1883. She had also studied how explosives worked and how to manufacture them. There’s another factor to her success, too: Bradford was “an astute businesswoman in the midst of America’s first billion-dollar oilfield,” writes the Oil and Gas Historical Society.

The Bradford oilfield is a huge oilfield in Pennsylvania and New York State that dates back to the 1860s. “The first well in the area was drilled in 1861, the first producing well in 1864, but the field did not establish true commercial production until 1871 when the Foster Oil Company completed a well just outside of the Pennsylvania town of Bradford,” writes amateur historian John A. Harper. “By mid-1884, Bradford field was the most prolific oilfield on the planet.”

Some of the earliest uses of dynamite and nitroglycerin were industrial, rather than related to warfare. After fracking was developed in the 1860s, nitroglycerin became a staple of the oil and gas extraction industries, while dynamite was used for the industrial mining purposes for which Alfred Nobel invented it. The Alfords had selected the perfect site for their operation. The fact that Mary Alford kept growing the business after her husband died presented newspapers such as the New York World with a fascinating oddity–though, of course, Alford was well-qualified to run her business.

However, given the position of women at the time, Alford acknowledged to the World that “it is an odd business to be in.” However, she went on, “I know no reason why a woman who understands it cannot manage as well as a man.” By the time Byron Alford died, writes the historical society, she had been running the business in his name for a number of years. Then, by the year after his death, she had upped production to 3,000 pounds of nitroglycerin per day and 6,000 pounds of dynamite.

“Soon Mrs. Alford’s manufacturing plant consisted of 12 cheaply built and unpainted wood buildings located outside of Eldred, Pennsylvania,” writes the historical society. “Brick buildings would have been prettier, she told the New York newspaper, but it would cost more to replace them.” In spite of the dangers posed by living near a nitroglycerin factory and the business obstacles posed by her gender, Alford kept at it and lived until 1924, dying at the age of 77.

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