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From the Historian: Remembering lost lives on the home front

Bill Poray

More than any other location in Perinton or Fairport, I am asked about a collection of small gray buildings scattered behind hundreds of feet of chain link fence on Whitney Road, just west of the Baird Road intersection. There is an ongoing curiosity with regard to the history of this place. I tell them that something very sad and historic happened here. 

Relocating from the city, the Rochester Fireworks Co. began the construction of buildings on the Whitney Road site in 1930. Eventually there were almost 50 buildings, some no bigger than a shed, to 4,000 square feet. The company made an array of fireworks products at the factory, mostly employing women from the nearby communities of Fairport and East Rochester.

Like so many other manufacturing plants, the fireworks factory began producing goods to support the military during World War II. The employees at this small factory complex made signal flare cartridges for the U.S. armed forces and, in doing so, helped to save the lives of American soldiers. As described in a telegram from Rear Adm. G.F. Hussey, United States Navy, to the Rochester Fireworks Co.: 

“... the United States Army Air Corp commends the excellent quality of Navy signal kits for which you supply cartridges. Recently, two army pilots forced to abandon ship by parachute were rescued after using your Green Signal in their kits to attract attention of passing aircraft. The Bureau extends thanks to all of you whose efforts helped provide this emergency equipment for Navy and Army pilots.”

The wartime employees of this factory, almost all women, were no different from those who built airplanes, tanks and weapons for the war effort; however, employment in a fireworks factory was inherently dangerous. This became all too real, when the front page of the Fairport Herald-Mail revealed the sad news:

“The entire community in the vicinity of Fairport and East Rochester was stunned and plunged into sorrow as never before last Friday afternoon, November 6, 1942, when the lives of eight persons were snuffed out in less time than is required to write this paragraph, at the plant of the Rochester Fireworks Company in West Whitney Road.” The death toll eventually climbed to 12 lives lost.

A historic marker was recently installed at the site, in memory of those who lost their lives in the fireworks factory tragedy, in service to their country. Their names are Bertha Archambo, Evelyn Mae Bigelow, Rose Costanzo, Viola Close, Angeline Mandell, Angeline Morabito, Minnie Brotsch, Yolanda Covino, Freda Cox, Fred Steeley, Evelyn Ellis and Mary Williams Parsons.

Bill Poray is historian for the town of Perinton. 

An historical marker stands at the site of the 1942 Rochester Fireworks Co. explosion.