Cedar City High School Class of 1960 Blog

Explosion

The day that rocked Cedar City

Haven Scott, hscott@thespectrum.com7:16 p.m. MDT September 24, 2016

 explosion

It was nearing nightfall on a Saturday night when an explosion on Leigh Hill shook the town of Cedar City.

The blast shattered windows on Main Street stores nearly two miles away, according to news reports in Iron County Record — the local newspaper that was later acquired by The Spectrum & Daily News.

“The terrific explosion, in the quiet evening hour brought a tremendous rush of people to the vicinity,” the article published five days after the incident detailed. “Although an exhaustive investigation is now being conducted, it may always remain a mystery.”

Two Cedar High School sophomores, Neil Beatty and William Short, died in the blast located at a “powder house,” or concrete building used to store explosives.

Lennis Hall, who now lives in northern Utah, said he and the two boys that died were neighbors at the time.

Newspaper accounts alleged that the boys were hunting rabbits up on Leigh Hill when the explosion occurred.

According to the article, Beatty and Short were seen buying .22 ammunition at Keith’s Westside Market (now The Vault Gun & Pawn on 200 North) and were later spotted near the area of the powder house not long before the blast.

bobby

Neil Beatty was a sophomore at Cedar High School when an unexplained explosion took his life in 1958. (Photo: CHS Yearbook of 1958)

billy

William “Billy” Short was a sophomore at Cedar High School when an unexplained explosion took his life in 1958. (Photo: CHS Yearbook of 1958

 

Back when the economy of Cedar City was based primarily on agriculture and mining, .22 rifles were much like video game systems of today, Hall said.“A lot of us had one growing up,” he said.

Hall said he couldn’t remember exactly what prevented him from going with the two boys that day, but he remembers the explosion that “shook the town.” Hall often spent his afternoons gallivanting with the two boys, he said, but for some reason, he wasn’t with them that day.

“I had something come up that day and I couldn’t go,” Hall said. “We had all been in that area numerous times shooting our .22’s. There was a big thick concrete building with a huge steel door and padlock. We shot at the building numerous times.”

After hearing the explosion, everyone in town had their eyes focused out west, Hall said.

“You could see a big mushroom cloud out west of Cedar City after we heard the blast,” he said. “The next morning, the police and fire departments were parked at the neighbor’s and the word was the boys didn’t come home the night before.”

Authorities found “bits and pieces” of clothing to identify Beatty and Short, Hall said.

The Iron County Record later reported the bodies were identified by dental records.

After the commotion at the site of the explosion calmed the next day, Hall had to look for himself.

“I went out to the site of the building and looked at the huge hole in the ground,” he said. “The trees were all blown to pieces, but especially to the west end of the hole. That was the direction the door to the building was facing.”

But, with the only two witnesses now dead, there was no explanation of what had occurred that evening.

“Did they get a lucky bullet that hit just right to create a spark?” Hall wondered. “It just seemed improbable that they could get the door opened by firing into that big steel door.”

The building was located in a gully on the east side of present day Leigh Hill, not far from the current site of the Cedar City LDS Temple.

Robert Beatty was 25 years old and living in Texas when news that a blast had killed his younger brother reached him.

Yet, even he doesn’t remember hearing anything about an official investigation.

“They told my parents that they thought they knew who blew up the dynamite house, but that’s all they knew,” Beatty said from his Nevada home. “They also said it couldn’t be done with a .22 bullet because there was a steel plate behind where the door knob is on these houses.”

The family never received any answers. All they had was two missing boys and the remnants of the exploded shed.

“They didn’t find a lot of my brother,” he said. “But they said they thought the two boys had set off the blast. I don’t know much more than that.”

Keith Seegmiller, of Cedar City, said anybody who was in Cedar City that day would never forget the memory of the explosion.

“I was in the same class as the boys,” he said. “On that day, I was riding my bike south on 100 West when the explosion occurred. It just about knocked me off my bike.”

The Iron County Record reported that approximately four tons of dynamite was stored in the powder house.

Powder houses

There are still three powder houses on the Cedar Ridge Golf Course, according to maintenance supervisor Steve Carter, although none have been used for decades.

“I was always told they used to house explosives, but I don’t know who used them,” he said. “There is one near the fourth hole and two near Hole 11.”

Cedar City Engineer Kit Wareham said uranium was mined behind the golf course decades ago. The powder houses would have served as a secure storage facility for the material.

While the case was reportedly investigated by Hercules Power Company and the Iron County Sheriff, the explosion was still listed as a mystery in an Iron County Record article more than three months after the incident.

Dyno Nobel, the company that purchased Hercules, was unable to find any reports of the investigation.

“Although some files and documents were passed on to us, many have since been destroyed,” Heidi Elder, a paralegal at Dyno Nobel, said.

The Iron County Sheriff’s Office also did not have any records of the explosions as most records predating 1980 have since been destroyed, Lt. Del Schlosser said.

Third boy

An interesting twist to this story came when I spoke with Cedar City resident Jean Truman after interviewing her husband for an unrelated story.

Although I had previously heard rumblings that a third boy could have lost his life that day, I quickly discredited that version as folklore after reading newspaper accounts.

Truman recounted an interesting visit she had while on a “church history tour” along the East Coast in 1993.

The tour guide had the participants stand up while on the bus and tell a little about themselves to help everyone get acquainted, Truman said.

When the bus stopped, a man, whose name she cannot remember, told her that he, too, was from Cedar City and had his own memories of the Leigh Hill explosion.

Truman said the man spoke of rabbit hunting with his friends on Leigh Hill when he noticed it was close to the time his mother had told him to be home.

“He said he took off running as hard as he could to get home so his mother wouldn’t be upset,” she said. “He said he made it down to where the freeway is now and there was an explosion that knocked him to the ground.”

The man seemed relieved to tell someone his story after all those years, Truman said.

“He knew the town well,” she said. “He said his mother’s house was where Arby’s is today, so he had quite the run to make.”

She was also unable to provide a concrete explanation as to what could have happened at the powder house.

Still today, Cedarians wonder how a .22 bullet could penetrate a concrete and steel fortress designed to house explosives.

The original author of the first Iron County Record article may have said it best: “It may always remain a mystery.”

 

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