Brian Bergin was a few days into a canoe trip with his brother-in-law through Minnesota’s Boundary Waters when he began to feel poorly. He was having a heart attack, and despite being helicoptered to a hospital, on July 13, 2009, Brian died. The longtime Northern Virginia resident was 66.
“My dad spent his life kind of not pursuing his dreams,” said his only child, Erin Bergin Voorheis of Leesburg. “The three happiest years of his life were from when he retired to when he passed away.”
It wasn’t as if Brian hated his career — he worked for years in union management — just that his true interests lay outside what he did behind a desk. Brian loved the intersection of history and place. He once biked the C&O Canal. After reading Stephen Ambrose’s “Undaunted Courage,” he retraced Lewis & Clark’s steps, re-creating their expedition in three separate trips.
And sometime around 2006, when he retired, Brian came across a reference to the Washington Arsenal explosion, an obscure tragedy that was to obsess him for the rest of his life.
The Washington Arsenal was an armaments factory on the tip of land where the Anacostia empties into the Potomac. Today, it’s home to Fort McNair. During the Civil War, all manner of explosives were produced there: artillery shells, cartridges, percussion caps, rocket flares.
Much of the dangerous work was done by women and girls. Their husbands, fathers and brothers were off at war. They were assumed to be more dexterous than men. Plus, they could be hired more cheaply. The women who toiled at the arsenal were drawn largely from the surrounding neighborhood, a working-class enclave known — because of the way it was cut off from the rest of the city by the fetid Washington Canal — as the Island.
On June 17, 1864, something ignited in the Washington Arsenal’s Choking Room, where several dozen women sat at a long table filling linen or paper bags with gunpowder that provided the explosive charges for .54-caliber bullets.
An inquest would determine that star shells — basically fireworks — that had been placed to dry in the sun outside combusted spontaneously. They shot through the Choking Room’s open windows, landed on the table and set off grains of gunpowder. Tongues of flame spread through the room. Cartridges exploded. The voluminous garments the women wore caught fire.
Seventeen women were killed instantly. Four died in the following days, victims, like so many during that war, of poor or nonexistent medical care. The youngest victim, Sallie McElfresh, was 12 years old.
When Brian was unable to find a book on the arsenal explosion, he decided to write one. He visited the Washingtoniana room at the D.C. Public Library, where he read contemporary newspaper accounts of the tragedy. He went to the National Archives to scour Census records.
“He just ate, slept and breathed this story,” Erin said. And he shared it with everyone he knew, including his daughter, who confesses that she was never into history. “My dad was so long-winded,” she laughed. “Now I’d give anything to just sit there and be bored.”
Brian hoped he might get his hands on a diary or some personal account beyond what was in the newspapers of the time. He never did, but he started writing nonetheless. He completed the manuscript and sent a copy to Johns Hopkins University Press. Hopkins declined to publish it.
Then Brian died. Erin, a mother of four who is a Mary Kay beauty consultant and freelance technical editor and writer, decided to see the project through. She approached 20 other publishers, only to have the book rejected by every one. Then, just before Father’s Day last year, the History Press, an energetic outlet based in Charleston, S.C., told her that it would take the book on. She had four months to whip her father’s words into shape, fact-check the book and secure copyright releases for images.
“The Washington Arsenal Explosion: Civil War Disaster in the Capital” was published last fall. Brian’s personality comes through in the 126-page paperback, which is written in occasionally flowery prose that seems to speak from the 19th century. It recounts the hardscrabble lives of those who lived on the Island, details the deadly explosion and describes the funeral. (President Lincoln attended with Edwin Stanton, his secretary of war.) It leaves readers at Congressional Cemetery, where an obelisk topped by a mourning figure was raised in memory of the explosion. Seventeen of the victims are buried under it.
“I felt like we did it together,” Erin said of the book that Brian passed on to her from the grave. As she pored over his handwritten notes, “I kind of forgot that my father was dead. Once the book was published, I got sad all over again.”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.