Remembering the Victims of Split Rock

The “Syracuse Journal” from July 3, 1918 tells the story of the tragedy at Split Rock. The newspaper and other artifacts from the event are on display at the Town of Onondaga Historical Society Museum in Onondaga Town Hall at 5020 Ball Road. The Museum is open Monday through Friday from 1-3 p.m.

A nearly century-old tragedy is motivating OCC students to make a difference in their community. “We want to preserve and memorialize what happened,” said Tara Carr (West Genesee HS, 2017). “We want to make sure Split Rock will never be forgotten.”

Carr is one of eleven students enrolled in “The Split Rock Disaster,” an Honors level class examining the tragedy that occurred July 2, 1918. What was once a former limestone quarry had been turned into a munitions factory where TNT was being manufactured for use in World War I. When a fire started at the site workers fought the blaze until they ran out of water pressure. The raging fire resulted in an explosion which was felt for miles around. Fifty-five workers were killed and 50 were injured.

Early in the semester students traveled to the site which is located off Split Rock Road in the Town of Onondaga. “To see what it looks like now gave us a sad feeling,” said student Flo Downing (Cathage HS, 2015). All that remains is a stone crusher which was built in 1903. “It was covered in graffiti,” added student Beckii Sessions (Town of Webb HS, 2016). “There was trash everywhere. The whole place was wrecked. There was a lot of broken glass and shotgun shells.”

Before and after photos of Split Rock.

Seeing what the site had become motivated students to take action in connection with the upcoming 100-year anniversary of the tragedy. Under the leadership of Professors Laurel Saiz and Melissa Hicks, students made a presentation to the Onondaga Town Board and are working on a series of related activities:

  • April 30 to May 4, 2018 will be “Split Rock Week” on campus. There will be a display in Coulter Library, a panel discussion and a performance of “Ghost Talk” by the OCC Drama Club which will focus on the perspectives of victims and survivors of the explosion.
  • A cleanup of the site led by community volunteers.
  • A ceremony at the site on July 2, 2018, the 100th anniversary of the fatal explosion.
  • A wreath-laying ceremony August 7, 2018 at Oakwood Cemetery in Syracuse on the 100th anniversary of the internment of the unidentified victims.

Even though the class is about to end the work will continue for these students. They’ll need permission from New York State to access the site. They are asking Oakwood Cemetery to include information about the Split Rock monument in the brochure they hand out to visitors. They’ve also asked the Honeywell Corporation to refurbish the monument in time for the August ceremony. “We will have a committee of people from this class who meet regularly next semester to make sure everything is still on track,” said student Abbie Moskov (Auburn HS, 2016). “We want to continue to bring awareness to the community even though we’ll be done with the class. We want to follow through.”

Students and professors in “The Split Rock Disaster” Honors class.

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