Astute businesswoman prospered in booming turn-of-century Pennsylvania oilfields.
In 1899, Mary Byron Alford, the “Only Woman in the World who Owns and Operates a Dynamite Factory,” prospered in the midst of America’s first billion-dollar oilfield. Mrs. Alford’s nitroglycerin factory cooked 3,000 pounds of nitroglycerin every day.
Today, the Bradford oilfield in Pennsylvania and adjacent New York remains important to U.S. petroleum heritage for Alford’s career and many other reasons, according to geologists and a nearby oil museum that educates tourists.
“A light golden amber to a deep moss-green in color, the ‘miracle molecule ‘ from the Bradford field is high in paraffin and considered one of the highest grade natural lubricant crude oils in the world,” explains the Penn-Brad Oil Museum (and historical park).
In 1881, the Bradford field alone accounted for 83 percent of all the oil produced in the United States. “It is located about equidistant between the place where oil was first discovered in America and the famous Drake well,” noted a 1929 abstract from the American Association of Petroleum Geologists.
With 85,000 acres of continuously productive territory from the Bradford sand, “its 25,000 producing wells and fifty-five years of productive history make it one of the most outstanding oil fields of the world.”
In November 1899, the New York World newspaper featured the world-famous oilfield – and its nitroglycerin company run by a woman more than two decades before women won the right to vote. “It is an odd business for a woman to be in,” said Mrs. Alford in the World’s article, “but I know no reason why a woman who understands it cannot manage it as well as a man.”
Unpainted Wood Buildings
Alford entered the explosive-making business in 1884 with her husband. Ten years later, as Mr. Alford’s health began to fail, she took over company operations. By 1899, she had increased daily production to 3,000 pounds of nitroglycerin and 6,000 pounds of dynamite.
“She did most all of the business duties including; purchasing chemicals, pay roll, sales, billing and shipping, hands on visiting of the factory manufacturing,” notes one historian (writing about the National Powder Company). “She was known to keep late nights working until midnight.”
Demand was high since nitroglycerin detonations – “shooting” a well – increased a well’s production from petroleum bearing formations. See Shooters – A “Fracking” History. Mrs. Alford’s manufacturing plant consisted of 12 cheaply built and unpainted wood buildings located outside of Eldred, Pennsylvania. Brick buildings would have been prettier, she told the New York newspaper, but it would cost more to replace them.
“The owner of a nitroglycerin factory never knows beforehand when it is going to blow up or afterward why it did blow up,” the article explained. “There is never anyone to explain how it happened.”
In 1899, the manufacture of nitroglycerin was a primitive, cautious, temperature-sensitive churning of nitric and sulphuric acids with glycerin. Knowing the temperature was vital. “On the accuracy of the thermometer depend the lives of the employees,” Mrs. Alford said.
“When the mixing is done, the liquid is the color of milk,” she added. “It is drawn off into a wooden tank in which there is eighteen inches of cold water. As the milky fluid strikes the water, red fumes light the surface and there is a sound like the hissing of geese.”
If successful, the nitroglycerin settled to the bottom of the wooden tank. Poured and readied for transport, an eight-quart can weighed 26 pounds and sold for $8 dollars. It was delivered by wagon – trains would not transport nitroglycerin for any price. Mrs. Alford maintained that if people were kind to nitroglycerin, they could live with it for a long time, despite her own close call. She lived with her husband and daughter only about 80-yards from their factory.
One evening, an employee may have absent-mindedly lit a match or otherwise erred. The factory and the Alford’s home were obliterated and the family buried under the debris. Neighbors dug them out to find they were not seriously injured. They rebuilt and started again. Mrs. Alford raised her daughter, Dessie, in the business.
“Dessie is my right bower,” she said. “I believe in bringing up a girl to work, even if it is not necessary from a financial point of view. Riches, if they fly away, do not work so much hardship for a girl who has been taught to work.”
The 19th century oilfield was a dangerous place — made even more dangerous by nitroglycerin. Despite the hazards, Mrs. Alford lived long and prospered. She died of natural causes in 1924 at the age of 77. Daughter Dessie followed in 1947 at 79.
Today, surrounded by the Allegheny National Forest, Bradford is home to Zippo Manufacturing Company and the American Refining Group, the oldest continuously operating refinery in the United States. Advanced drilling technologies has led to producing natural gas from a 400-million-year-old rock formation, the Marcellus Shale.
Unfortunately, the Penn-Brad Oil Museum’s derrick, erected in 1971, was removed in May 2020 because of safety concerns. The nonprofit museum would welcome donations to go towards rebuilding this petroleum history landmark.
The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2020 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.
Citation Information – Article Title: “Mrs. Alford’s Nitro Factory.” Author: Aoghs.org Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/petroleum-pioneers/mrs-alfords-nitro-factory. Last Updated: November 8, 2020. Original Published Date: September 1, 2005.