The Dynamite Truck Explosion Near Cove Gap

By Dan Guzy

In the predawn hours of August 7, 1951, Raymond Bess drove a truck from the national Powder Company headquarters in Eldred, northwest Pennsylvania (McKean County) towards its facility in Bakerton, West Virginia (near Harpers Ferry).  The truck was a 1946 International Harvester and its cargo was six tons of dynamite.

The 27-year-old Bess had crossed over several mountains before entering Franklin County. Then, descending the eastern downhill slope of Tuscorora Mountain on PA Route 16, the truck's foot brakes "went out."  Bess applied the emergency brake, but it also failed to fully stop the heavily loaded truck.  The emergency brake became so hot it started a fire that spread to the truck's undercarriage.

This was only Bess's second trip down Tuscorora Mountain.  He was unfamiliar with his immediate surroundings, but he knew the village of Cove gap was further downhill at the foot of the mountain.  To save his own life and those of the village's people.  Bess steered the truck towards the embankment and jumped from the truck.  The truck was moving at ten to twenty miles per hour at the time - around 5:00 AM that Tuesday morning.

Bess sustained several brush burns but was not seriously injured from his jump.  He watched as the truck broke through the cables of a guardrail 150 feet downhill from him, continued down a 50 to 75-foot embankment on the south side of the road, and came to rest while still on fire.  The light from the flames under the truck revealed to him two nearby houses farther south, along a section of the old road that the new Route 16 and its embankment had bypassed.  Bess bravely moved quiclkly past the burning truck to warn the houses' occupants about the impending dynamiye explosion.

Both houses belonged to George Armstrong. The flaming dynamite truck landed about 150 feet from his concrete block
house, which had been built three years earlier on the foundation of the former Hollenshead distillery. That house
was temporarily unoccupied and only partially furnished, awaiting a renter to move in later that
very day. Three hundred feet away from the truck and across the road, Armstrong, his wife, their son, Ben, and their daughter, Donna, were
inside their two-and-a-half story wood frame house.  The other house Bess saw. (This latter house
was likely the same white house shown near the Hollenshead distillery ruins in John Thompson's
book, Historic Views of Old Mercersburg: The Jewelbox of Franklin County.)
The truck's crash and Raymond Bess's yelling awoke the Armstrong family. The truck's
fire continued for about 15 minutes, giving them time to quickly dress and drive away in their car.
Bess told them to go east, telephone the fire department, and stop traffic from that direction. Bess
went west to stop other drivers coming down the mountain on Route 16.
The Armstrongs drove to Lloyd and Lula Rockwell's home a quarter of mile away and
asked the Rockwells to telephone the fire department. The Armstrongs then drove back towards
their home and parked 150 yards away from it. Thirty seconds later, at 5: 15 AM, the dynamite
exploded. The blast lifted their car's front wheels off the ground, but none of the Armstrongs were
hurt. However, Lula Rockwell, who had finished her phone call and stepped out on her porch to
view the fire, was knocked down by the blast, causing a slight concussion and the laceration of
her elbow.
The explosion of the six tons of dynamite created a crater 25 feet deep and 235 feet in
circumference. It collapsed the Armstrong's concrete block house, which caught on fire. It also
destroyed the Armstrong's wood frame house by crushing in its porch and front side, and lifting
off its roof. All trees in the immediate area were destroyed.
Samuel Gordon's house was seated south and above the Armstrong property, atop a steep
incline along what is now called Timber Lane. The blast lifted the house from its foundation and
twisted its chimney. Glass blew in from the bedroom window of Gordon's four-year-old daughter,
cutting her on her cheek and arm. Little Esther Gordon was fortunately only the second person
injured by the explosion. No person was killed. The Annstrongs' dog, left at home, was cut by
flying glass.
The explosion blew the dynamite truck to smithereens. Newspapers reported that parts of
the truck were strewn "upwards of a mile away." A tire rim from the truck landed on the Gordon
property and a timing gear at the Rockwells' home. A bumper and three pieces of a gas tank all
flew a quarter of mile. The former reached Mary Reese's home and the latter landed in George
Moreland's potato patch. Hot metal set a chestnut tree on fire a half mile away.
The center of Cove Gap was a half mile away from the explosion, but shielded by part of
the mountain east of the Armstrong property. Nevertheless, at least 19 houses there and within
three quarters of mile from the explosion suffered damage, mostly shattered window glass.
Rhonda Berger told police that she estimated 46 window panes had broken in her house.
The blast was heard and felt up to thirty miles away. People in Shippensburg, Caledonia,
Fayetteville, and Chambersburg experienced a tremor. Windows rattled in Saint Thomas. In
McConnellsburg, on the other side of Tuscarora Mountain, folks awoke and filled the streets
wondering what happened. Fort Littleton and Webster Mills also experienced the shock.
C. C. Glazer of Mercersburg was among those Raymond Bess saved. As Glazer drove his
truck westward on Route 16, the Armstrongs failed to stop him. When he saw Bess's truck on
fire, he parked to investigate. Bess quickly came back to the scene and warned him of the danger.
Glazer then continued on up the mountain and was jolted by the blast, but not hurt.
The Pennsylvania state police lauded Bess for his efforts. Police ChiefM. W.
McCormick of McConnellsburg reported he would be recommending Bess for a Carnegie hero
Bess never received such an award. A few years later he moved to Savannah, Georgia
where he worked as a heavy equipment operator and married his second wife. His great nephew
recalled: "I've never heard a man laugh so hard as the times I've seen him watch the Road
Runner cartoon, back when I'd spend the night with him and aunt Mimi when I was a pre-teen.
He had his own garden and also kept chickens. He put salt on the top of his can of beer."
Bess moved back to Pennsylvania and died in August 1981. He is buried in Eldred, where
his old employer once was. By then the National Powder Company had become Joyce National
Powder, which ceased operations in the early 1980s. The EPA made it a superfund clean-up site
in 1997.
The four Armstrongs plus another son (Richard, who was away when the truck crashed)
were left homeless after their house was destroyed. Two newspapers reported that a third son,
James, offered them shelter at his residence just outside of Mercersburg. Another newspaper later
said that George's mother, Martha, offered them her home in Mercersburg. The Mercersburg
VFW headed a drive to get clothing and bedding for the family. George Armstrong said at the
time: "There's nothing to do but start over again. I hope someone has the money to pay for all of
This writer could not find out whether the Armstrongs moved back, but someone built a
one-story house on the foundation where the Armstrongs' two-and-a-half story house had been. A
small barn with a round top was built atop the foundation which once supported a distillery and
later the concrete block house destroyed by the explosion. A family named Johnston lived on the
property for a while and sold it to Don Rohrer in 1989.
When folks of a certain age from this area are asked about the dynamite truck explosion,
they all seem to remember hearing the blast as children and recall some minimal details about the
event. But they do not seem to fully recognize that it was a near miss to much a greater disaster,
entailing massive damage and casualties in Cove Cap. Had Bess gone a half mile farther before
realizing his truck was aflame, or had the guard rails along Route 16 performed as intended and
prevented the abandoned truck from going over the side-allowing it to careen on downhillthen
the six tons of dynamite might well have destroyed the village. Something to ponder the next
time you are stuck behind a slow-moving truck on your way down Tuscarora Mountain towards
Cove Gap.

• "Truck Loaded with Dynamite Explodes; Two Slightly Injured," August 8, 1951,
[Chambersburg] Public Opinion. "Family Made Homeless by Dynamite Blast Gets
Shelter at Home of Son," August 9, 1951, [Chambersburg] Public Opinion. "Town
Rocked by Dynamite Explosion," August 9, 1951, [McConnellsburg] Fulton County
News. "2 Houses Demolished at Cove Gap When Dynamite Truck Explodes," August 10,
1951, Mercersburg Journal. "Houses of Local Man's Brother Demolished by Big
Explosion," August 10, 1951, [Shippensburg] Chronicle News.
• Private communications with Calvin Bricker, Lucas Lapole, Don Rohrer, and John
• Photos and information provided by Clair E. Lininger, Sr. and Gary Hawbaker.

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