In search of the tragic 1931 campfire site
Vines and thick brush entangle stone ruins of the historic H. A. Weldy Powder Works in Taggartsville, a 23-acre former industrial site located just a short hike from Tamaqua borough limits. ARCHIVES/DONALD R. SERFASS
I’m not sure why I wanted to find the site of the fatal campfire poisoning.
But maybe it’s part of natural human behavior.
Certainly the enormity of the tragedy is compelling.
And I guess there’s something inside of us that makes us want to explore such things.
Curiosity is normal. We just want to do whatever we can to understand something not understandable.
On two occasions I hiked to the approximate location where eight men gathered for a casual, private picnic and unknowingly drank a toxic cocktail.
It happened 85 years ago, on July 13, 1931, and the results were ghastly. The victims died slow, agonizing deaths.
Through research, I learned the men built a campfire at the Tamaqua Tunnel near the ruins of the H. A. Weldy Powder Works plant. The plant, built along a river with small dams and races, was once a leader in production of explosives and a forerunner to Atlas Powder Co.
I’m familiar with the stone ruins of the legendary 1800s facility. I’ve studied the place and have written about it. But I’m not sure where the men camped.
The first time I tried to find the site of the campfire I was joined by veteran outdoorsman Rob Evans of Auburn.
He’s familiar with hiking off the beaten path and he’s also a descendant of Patrick Slavin, one of the poison victims.
Rob and I started at Taggartsville and hiked along the Little Schuylkill River. The wilderness area is part of state game lands and heavily overgrown.
We fought our way through brush, sticker bushes and tangled vines.
We passed a site where village houses once stood, stumbling on a dangerous and hidden drinking well that could’ve swallowed us.
“This reminds me of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” I joked. Despite a lengthy trek, we just couldn’t pinpoint the ill-fated spot.
The elusive campsite, wherever it existed, has been camouflaged by nature.
I did, however, discover remnants of an old agateware pot, a telltale sign of human activity. It’s old enough to have been part of the infamous gathering. And so maybe I found the right place anyway. But I’ll probably never know for sure.
When Rob and I emerged from the woods, the Indiana Jones joke turned into reality. We found ourselves covered with dangerous ticks, head to toe.
“It’s a curse,” I said, as we took turns carefully picking those tiny bloodsuckers from each other.
Of course, I’m nothing if not determined. And so weeks later, I returned to the same area, this time accompanied by then-police chief Dave Mattson.
We scoured the woods, searching for clues.
The chief suggested the site might’ve been located on the opposite side of the 1854 railroad tunnel.
“Let’s go,” he said. “We’ll hike through the tunnel.” And so we did.
Unfortunately, there was no identifiable campsite over there, either.
I’m still curious, but I won’t try to find the campsite a third time.
I’ve come to the conclusion that Mother Nature has eradicated all hints of it. The site has been completely reclaimed.
And maybe that’s for the best, especially given the macabre reality of what took place there.
It was an innocent outing that ended the lives of all who participated. A night of fun turned into excruciating pain. Then they were gone.
It was just so final. And maybe it should stay that way.
It’s not important for us to know exactly where it happened. I doubt anybody will find it. It’s meant to stay hidden. The spirits are unwelcoming.
Those eight buddies were very private about their gathering.
They didn’t want visitors in 1931. And they still don’t.