The Historic Connection Between Alfred Nobel and Glen Canyon Park
for California Historical Landmark No. 1002, April 21, 2018.
Magnificent Glen Canyon Park—70 acres of open space in the heart of San Francisco—holds an important historic link to the most prestigious award in the world, the Nobel Prize. In 1868 the park was the site of the first commercial plant in the United States, built to manufacture Alfred Nobel’s new, vitally important invention, dynamite. Established as California Historical Landmark No. 1002 by the State of California in 1991, the time has now come to visually mark this important aspect of local, national, and global history.
Mighty Dynamite: Carving out Progress for California
As California was experiencing a burst of development in the nineteenth century, there was a need for a more powerful substance able to blast through rock and mountainside. Chemist Alfred Nobel rose to the challenge, discovering that oil of nitroglycerin had five times the explosive
Alfred Nobel (1833-1896), inventor of dynamite. Image from Biography.com.
power of black powder. He formed an exclusive partnership with pioneer San Francisco merchant, Julius Bandmann of Bandmann & Nielsen & Co., whose brother in Paris was an associate of Nobel, to manufacture and sell the new blasting oil in California. Soon, the promise of the new oil stalled when the instability of the substance led to several deaths worldwide, including Nobel’s own brother.
Seeking a safer formulation, Nobel accidentally discovered a way to stabilize the substance - by allowing oil of nitroglycerin to be absorbed by a silica-based clay called kieselguhr. He called this first product of the high-explosive industry dynamite. He again gave exclusive license to Bandmann, Neilsen & Co., who then established Giant Powder Company of San Francisco. One to two acres of land in today’s Glen Canyon Park was leased from Rancho San Miguel co-owner L. L. Robinson, a California pioneer who helped build the state’s first railroad. A manufactory complex was constructed with operations beginning in March 1868, making it the first dynamite factory in the United States.
Billhead image generously provided by Dr. Robert Chandler, San Francisco Corral (No. 30), Westerners International.
The Powder Works in the Heart of the Park
The workers, at Giant Powder Company included 3 experienced Nobel employees, foreman and chemist Dr. John Bussenius; an assistant, Alfred Wartenweiler; teamster John Cook, in addition to 6 to 8 Chinese workers, all who lived on the site. The complex was centered in the area around the current Recreation Center in Glen Canyon Park. It was comprised of several buildings, including a large factory that produced the nitroglycerin and dynamite, a cottage for the 3 Nobel employees, a so-called "shanty" for the Chinese workers, a drying room, stable for 2 horses, water tanks, and a storage elevator.
Estimated layout of the Giant Powder Company complex, March 1868 to November 1869, overlayed on a modern Google Map (2017) of today's Glen Canyon Park Recreation Area.
The Great Explosion
After operating for just a year and a half, the manufacturing complex was destroyed by a sudden, massive explosion on November 26, 1869. The explosion was seen and heard in downtown San Francisco 6 miles away; windows were shattered up to a mile away. All structures were obliterated, and material from the complex was scattered in all directions. Dr. Bussenius and teamster Cook were killed instantly. Assistant Wartenweiler survived and was able to provide many important details at the coroner's inquest 12 days after the explosion. At least 6 of the 8 Chinese workers were named in one newspaper account: Ah Chum, Ah Chow, Ah Siag, Ah Moy, Ah Gne, and Ah Choy. All were reported severely injured in most reports, though one account notes one of them was also killed. Another report stated one of the Chinese workers was able to go to Chinatown for call for assistance. When aid arrived, the Chinese workers were transported to the Young Wo Tung & Co. on Commercial between Kearny and Dupont (today's Grant Avenue). The powder works at the site was deemed a total loss. Giant Powder relocated to the sand dunes of today’s Sunset District 3 months later, and years after that relocated to the East Bay. The cause of the explosion was never determined.
Melted, charred, and sometimes fused glass as a result of the powerful Giant Powder Works explosion in 1869.
Other possible artifacts from the site include (all noted during the coroner's inquest as types of apparatus used during manufacturing): melted lead (2 pieces, upper left and 1 piece upper right); cast iron (1 piece, below melted led); porcelain crucible (1 piece, upper right); pieces of melted glass (left side). Also shown on the right are 2 pieces of redwood. The upper piece may have been part of the fencing or structural support; the lower piece has a primitive dovetail on the top edge, just left of center.
The Legacy and Wealth of Alfred Nobel
Nobel became extremely wealthy from his inventions, but as a lifelong pacifist he abhorred the loss of life they brought. Childless, he left most of his wealth in the form of a fund that would award prizes to those “… who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.” The accumulation of wealth that would ultimately lead to the prestigious Nobel Prize began here, in San Francisco’s Glen Canyon Park.
The location of the Giant Powder Works in Glen Canyon was documented in 1927 (republished 1972) in a work by Van Gelder and Schlatter, History of the Explosives Industry in America.
The Nobel medal. Image from NobelPrize.org.
This grainy image taken in 1927 shows the site of the Giant Powder Works in Glen Canyon, formerly known as Rock House, or Rocky, Gulch. The sloping road on the left may be today's Bosworth Street entrance into the park. The structure in the center may be the first structure built approximately 1922 to route Islais Creek into San Francisco's combined water/sewer system just north of today's Glen Park Recreation Center.
In 1991, San Francisco activist and historiian Ms. Jean Kortum spearheaded the effort to designate the site in Glen Canyon Park a California Historical Landmark. In early 1991 the San Francisco Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board (now the Historic Preservation Commission) unanimously approved landmark status; the Recreation and Parks Department approved the designation soon after; and official landmark status was approved by the California State Historical Resources Commission on July 9, 1991. However, the plaque for California Historical Landmark No. 1002 documenting the location and history of the first dynamite factory in the United States was never placed.
Placement of the Plaque
An important objective of GPNHP was to place the plaque for this landmark site in order to honor Alfred Nobel for his innovation and philanthropic work, those who died and were injured in the explosion, and Jean Kortum for her work to establish the landmark.
The renovation of the Recreation Center at Glen Canyon Park offered a matchless opportunity to work with our members, donors, and the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department to reach this objective. And, we are happy to report that the California Office of Historic Preservation has approved our proposed text, and the SF Parks Commission approved placement on August 17, 2017! We are thrilled to be working in collaboration with SF Recreation and Parks Department, as well as the Native Sons of the Golden West to complete the work Ms. Kortum began over 27 years ago. Our grant application to the Historical Preservation Foundation of the Native Sons of the Golden West to support purchase and shipping of the plaque was approved for $1500, half our our requested amount, in June 2017. Twin Peaks Parlor No. 214 of the Native Sons of the Golden West provided another grant in the amount of $1500. We ordered and received the plaque from the historic California Bell Company, originators of the El Camino Real Mission Bell Markers in 1906, in November 2017. The San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department graciously constructed and installed the plaque, and helping the GPNHP support the grand dedication ceremony.
The Grand Unveiling and Dedication was held on April 21, 2018! Read more!
The actual plaque for California Landmark No. 1002 upon receipt from the California Bell Company, November 2017.