Monday, January 11, 2016

The Exploding Vault

by Erin Doane, curator

Visitors often ask us about the big, black metal door in the museum’s bank gallery. A lot of children think it must be a jail cell because there are bars behind the door. We tell them that no, it is not a jail cell. It is the Exploding Vault. In 1884, an explosion in that very vault led to the death of John Arnot, Jr.

The "Exploding Vault" with the door closed (l) and the door open (r)
John Arnot Jr. was born in Elmira on March 11, 1831. He was the second son of entrepreneur and businessman John Arnot. In 1852, when his father took over control of the Chemung Canal Bank, he became cashier. Upon his father’s death, he became president of the bank. His duties at the bank were what eventually led to his untimely death.

The Chemung Canal Bank, c. 1900
On the morning of Monday, October 20, 1884, Arnot went to work at the Chemung Canal Bank. He and several clerks began getting ready for the day’s business. At about 9:00am he went into the vault to open the inside safe. He stuck a match to light the gas lamp inside. A massive fireball instantly erupted. The explosion blew Arnot across the room and he struck a cashier’s desk. His clothes were torn from his body, his face was burned black, and his whiskers and hair were completely burned off. He was still conscious, however. When a clerk told him they were sending for a doctor, Arnot said there was no need. The clerk called for one anyway. Arnot had severe burns on his hands and face. The doctor feared that he might lose the sight in one if not both eyes. He also feared that Arnot has suffered severe internal injuries.

The explosions was so immense that nearly every window in the bank was shattered by the concussion. In some cases, the window sashes were completely blown out. It twisted the vault door and tore off the locks. The banking apartments upstairs were even damaged. The blast could be heard and felt for blocks around the bank. People gathered around the building that morning to try to learn what had happened. Reports of the explosion appeared in dozens of newspapers throughout the state and country. The most accepted theory as to the cause of the explosion was that someone left a small gas jet burning in the vault when the bank closed on Saturday afternoon. As soon as the air in the vault was exhausted, the flame went out but gas continued to escape. When Arnot lit a match on Monday morning, the accumulated gas instantly ignited.

John Arnot, Jr.
Arnot was slow to recover from the explosion. Though his injuries were severe, he did not lose his sight. After a time, he was able to return to his seat in Congress. Not only was Arnot a millionaire banker. He was also involved in politics. He served as president of the village of Elmira in 1859, 1860, and 1861 and became the city’s first mayor in 1863. He held that position in 1870 and 1874 as well. In 1882 he was somewhat reluctantly nominated as a candidate for the 28th congressional district. He was asked twice before he finally accepted. Although he was a member of the Democratic Party in a Republican district he was easily elected. He was reelected in 1884 with little opposition.

John Arnot's letter accepting the nomination for congress, 1882

Arnot returned to his duties in congress but the lingering shock from the accident left him weak and unwell. His fellow congressman notice the change. Congressman Wilkins of Ohio commented, “When he returned to his seat in the first session of the Forty-ninth Congress it was a subject of common remark he was not the same John Arnot as before. At times during this session he would rally and seem to grow stronger, encouraging the hope for his ultimate restoration to health, but for months prior to his death his rapidly failing strength gave unmistakable evidence the end was near.”

Memorial Addresses on the Life and
Character of John Arnot, Jr. Delivered
in the House of Representatives and in
the Senate, February 8, 1887
Ultimately, the injuries he received in the explosion were too great. John Arnot, Jr. died at his home in Elmira on November 20, 1886. His death was announced in the U.S. House of Representatives on December 6 and he was eulogizes by nine of his fellow congressmen on the house floor on February 8, 1887. Locally, he was remembered as one of the most popular and respected men in Elmira. He was known for his kindness and generosity. His contributions to charity helped countless people in the region and were sorely missed after his passing.

Congressman Timothy J. Campbell of New York recounted an incident following Arnot’s death: A very old and poverty-stricken couple, the husband more than eighty years of age and blind and the wife closely approaching the same period of life, froze to death within a few days of Mr. Arnot’s demise—he by the wayside in the midst of a severe snow-storm while out seeking something to provide warmth and food, and she while awaiting in her home his return. It was then ascertained for the first time that for years they had been the constant and regular recipients of the bounty of our friend. The hand and good heart that had protected and provided for them had been too suddenly withdrawn. No one can tell into how many households where there was want, sickness, and the disabled distress entered, although it is to be hoped not in such terrible shape as this, when our friend died.


  1. What a tragic story...from now on when I walk by the vault will think of that tragic day of the explosion ....and when I see the name Arnot remember how generous this family has been to the community over the years

  2. definitely a tragic story as to what happened to Mr Arnot however his family name lives on today with different things and places named in the families honor