Sessums History Snippet: The New London Explosion:

The upcoming JD Pierson mystery, The Case of the Texas Ranger starts with a tragedy in East Texas when a school building explodes in the small town of New London, about 25 miles west of Tyler, Texas.

The story of the New London School explosion is true, though the characters I’ve created in reference to the terrible tragedy are all fictional.  The school district of New London was one of the wealthiest, even though the Depression was raging.  The oil boom in that part of Texas boosted local revenue, and in 1932, the school was built at a cost of $1 million or about $18 million today.

Despite urgings from the architects, the school district decided to install gas heaters in the building instead of a boiler.  Then, in 1937, the district terminated its natural gas contract and decided to tap directly into Parade Gas Company’s residue gas lines.  This wasn’t unusual in the area, and because the gas was considered to be a byproduct that was simply flared off by the company, they simply overlooked the practice. 

On that fateful day, a Thursday, students in grades first through fourth had left the school early.  Reports differ, but there were approximately 500 students at the school when an instructor turned on an electric sander, thereby sparking the explosion.  Witnesses reported that the walls bulged and the roof lifted up before falling back down.

Help poured into East Texas from all around, and Tyler’s own Mother Francis Hospital did indeed open their doors early to treat the injured children and adults.  Of the 500 or so persons in the building, only about 130 walked away without serious injury.  Estimates of the dead go as high as 319.

The story of the New London catastrophe was reported all over the world, and one of those reporters was a very young Walter Cronkite.  This was one of his first assignments, and he later is quoted as saying, “I did nothing in my studies nor in my life to prepare me for a story of the magnitude of that New London tragedy, nor has any story since that awful day equaled it.”

The cause of the catastrophe was found to be a leak in the connection to the gas pipeline that allowed the fuel to build up throughout the building without notice since it was odorless and colorless.  Later, and in part because of this tragedy, an additive was put in natural gas so that leaks could be discovered quicker. If you’re ever in East Texas, there is a little museum dedicated to the tragedy.  I’m told that until not long ago, one of the children who survived the event served as a docent and gave her own first-person accounts of the experience.  You can also see their website which includes some haunting personal accountings from the time.

Photo from the New London Museum site.

Be sure to preorder the upcoming The Case of the Texas Ranger and head over to my Snazzy, Knobby, Keen Dish page to enter the GIVEAWAY!

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