As the New Year dawned in 1960, businesses and residents in Spruce Pine were cleaning up the damage from a New Year’s celebration gone wrong.
The details are taken from a story in the January 2, 1960 edition of The Asheville Citizen:
At 10:30 on the evening of Thursday, December 31, 1959, William Douglas Green and Joseph Arthur McKinney had “decided to make a little noise to celebrate the coming of the New Year.” Earlier that day, they had purchased a case of dynamite at Blackburn Hardware on Locust Avenue (Lower Street), and later went to a party. They left the gathering and around 10:30 went to the Spruce Pine baseball park (then Deyton Field; now the location of today’s Riverside Park) where they decided to create some fireworks to celebrate the arrival of 1960.
According to the Citizen story, they removed 21 sticks of dynamite from the box, leaving 99 in it, then rigged a blasting cap and fuse to the remaining sticks, lit the fuse, and ran. The resulting explosion was heard 15 miles away (in the Avery County community of Ingalls), broke approximately 100 windows and damaged about 25 buildings according to the Spruce Pine Police Department. Ironically, one of the stores damaged was McKinney’s father’s grocery. Windows in cars parked on Locust Avenue were also broken. Pritchard Paint and Hardware Company of Asheville called in workers from their New Year’s holiday to repair the windows and Spruce Pine town workers cleaned up the streets on New Year’s Day. Total damage was estimated between $10,000-$15,000 ($82,000-$123,000 in 2016) by Spruce Pine Police Chief James F. Burleson.
No one was injured by the blast. There were approximately 20 people dining at Young’s Cafe on Locust Avenue across from the baseball field at the time of the explosion. They were shaken up a bit as a window was blown out. A Statesville Record & Landmark story that ran January 1, 1960 reported that Spruce Pine Police sergeant J.W. Tappan was in City Hall when the explosion occurred. He stated that he was “real shook up too” when it happened. “Some amateurs set off all this dynamite over in the ball field just across the river,” Tappan told the paper. “This is a mining community and every time some celebration comes around, somebody sets off some explosive. This time, a bunch of amateurs must have gotten hold of a near-case of dynamite and it all went up at the same time.” Tappan added that “we know it’s amateurs because no miner is going to be damn fool enough to miss New Year’s by so much as an hour.” In a related version of the story distributed by the UPI wire service, Sergeant Tappan was quoted saying “We’re used to noise up here but we can’t have amateurs blowing holes in the ground big enough to hold a truck.” The Record & Landmark story concluded with “Explosives are nearly as easy to get as a package of cigarettes in this small mountain community.”
News of the dynamite incident spread nationwide through stories running on the AP and UPI wire services. Headlines across America told the story. “Boom Town – Boys’ Loud Celebration Shatters Glass In Store” (Louisville, KY); ”Boys Bring ’60 In With Bang” (Phoenix, AZ); “2 Teens Blow Town to Big 1960 Welcome” (Chicago, IL); “Boys ‘Celebrate,’ Rock Town With Dynamite” (Indianapolis, IN); “2 Celebrators Do A Bang-Up Job” (Salt Lake City, UT); “Amateur Blasters Wreck Town” (Odessa, TX); “Mining Town All ‘Shook Up’” (Levittown, PA); and “Boys Make Big New Year Bang With Dynamite” (Los Angeles, CA) were just a few of the many stories that appeared.
The Asheville Citizen reported on January 9 that “worried relatives in California, Florida and New Hampshire kept long-distance telephone lines buzzing after the story was carried by the Associated Press” and also noted that letters were received by the Spruce Pine Post Office inquiring on how the town was coping with the explosion. One received from Washington, D.C. was addressed to ”Spruce Pine (Or What Is Left Of It), North Carolina.”
Green and McKinney had planned on using the remaining 21 sticks of dynamite for a second blast, but they were so shaken by the experience that they went home to their fathers and confessed. The Citizen reported that the fathers, who were prominent Spruce Pine businessmen, notified the police after hearing their story. They were charged with a misdemeanor of illegally exploding dynamite. Both posted $1,000 bonds that were set by Justice of the Peace Jack Tappan and were freed after turning themselves in. They were scheduled to appear in the April, 1960 session of Mitchell County Superior Court.
Residents who were already spooked by the dynamite fireworks were jostled again when a small earth tremor shook the area at 3:33 a.m. on January 3, 1960. This prompted hundreds of calls to local fire and police departments asking if there had been another explosion in Spruce Pine. The tremor lasted approximately 10 seconds and there was no damage caused by the shake.
In the April 13, 1960 edition of the Asheville Citizen, it was reported that Solicitor J. Alley Hayes announced a bill of indictment was also being drawn against the person who sold the dynamite to Green and McKinney. The article did not name who was being indicted. Solicitor Alley stated that dynamite was “sold like popcorn and cheese cake” in the Mitchell County area, prompting him to file the charge. However, the article noted that “the solicitor’s criticism was aimed at indiscriminate selling,” and noted that he wasn’t criticizing the sale of dynamite in general. The story also reported that Judge George B. Patton accepted the guilty pleas of the boys and deferred sentencing to the September court term.
According to the initial Asheville Citizen report, the New Year’s Eve incident was the first time the two boys had used dynamite and “It was the last, too, their fathers said.”
This wasn’t the first time Spruce Pine businesses had had windows blown out by an errant dynamite blast. On April 3, 1928, the Asheville Citizen reported that a large number of windows in downtown Spruce Pine were shattered when an overloaded dynamite blast was set off as part of preparation of the construction site for a garage at Mayland Motor Company. Damage from the blast was estimated at about $1,000 ($14,000 in 2016). This was near the location of the Toe River Service Station on Oak Avenue (Upper Street) that was shuttered recently when the bank (where that explosion took place in 1928) slid off onto the building.
Happy New Year to all!